The Lodge unfolds as an exhaustion of two tropes that have come to define films about disenfranchised whiteness over the last few years – vast wintry landscapes, and a dollhouse aesthetic. The film actually opens in a dollhouse, and from there confounds the distinction between dollhouses and real houses, since all the characters seem awkwardly and artificially placed in domestic spaces. At the same time, the action moves from the city, to the lodge of the title, taking us through landscapes that get whiter, bleaker and emptier as they proceed.
These stylistic traits are paired with a study in post-traumatic horror that comprises two intersecting trauma narratives, both of which relate to suicide. The film starts by introducing us to the Hall family – mother Laura, played by Alicia Silverstone, father Richard, played by Richard Armitage, and children Mia (Lia McHugh) and Aidan (Jaedan Martell). The Halls are recently separated, and the film opens with Richard telling Laura he wants a divorce, prompting her to go home, pour a glass of white wine, and commit suicide in her dining room.
The sudden, matter-of-fact nature of this suicide is quite shocking, especially since Silverstone is easily the most recognisable member of the cast, but it’s not the last time we hear of suicide in the film. It turns out that Richard, a psychiatrist, left Laura for one of his patients, Grace Marshall, played by Riley Keogh, who has to be medicated for psychopathic tendencies. Grace is the last remaining survivor of a suicide cult headed by Aaron, played by Keogh’s own father Danny, who proclaimed her the reason for this collective suicide when she was a young child.
These two narratives intersect in the second act, when Richard tries to help Mia and Aidan process their mother’s death, and accept his new wife, with a winter trip to their family lodge, located deep in the Massachussetts woods. Since Richard has work to do before Christmas, he suggests that Grace, Mia and Aidan spend a couple of days alone at the lodge house, which is an exact replica of Mia’s own dollhouse, right down to the paintings, fixtures and furniture.
The result is an exercise in grief horror, full of harrowing crying scenes, and bleary, wintry, washed-out compositions. The whole film is shot through a miasma of grief – grief so strong that it blurs any coherent semblance of space, leaving us mainly with close-ups of faces. Initially most of the key scenes are shot through grimy, icy and frosted windows, suffusing the frame with blinding winter light, but Franz and Fiala gradually incorporate a whole host of gritty translucent media, including shower curtains, foggy mirrors and a jar of murky water filled with plankton that Mia always holds up to the light like a pair of post-traumatic glasses.
I have to confess I’m not the biggest fan of this kind of grief horror, since it’s often less spatially attuned than classical horror, which can make it less suspenseful in turn. While we’re notionally in the depths of the woods, the landscape around the house is pretty abstract – just a huge frozen lake, beneath a monotonous grey sky – while the house is so dark, and the outside world so white, that your eyes are always struggling to adjust, meaning you can never immerse yourself in one single space for very long. Similarly, the light through the windows is too bleary and bright for the outside world to ever be discernible from inside the lodge itself.
In other words, there’s no regular lighting in The Lodge – every scene is either too bright, too dark, or too dim. At its best that makes for a Bergmanesque chamber drama, driven by the atonal space between the children and their stepmother. Yet this form of horror, which is grim above all else, can also be a bit lacklustre, tedious and sluggish, as the focus on trauma mitigates against the propulsive intensity and dark comedy that often drives the best horror films. After a while, even the looming shots of rooms and exteriors starts to seem portentous.
Fiala and Franz also seem to be aware of this bind, since a significant amount of time is devoted to watching the three characters watch The Thing, another film set in a predominantly icy terrain – so bright and white that Carpenter developed a series of skin cancers while shooting it that have plagued him ever since. Despite the omnipresent white backdrops, however, The Thing still manages to include a more manageable lighting scheme, along with an extravagant and exotic sense of space that is completely absent from The Lodge.
In some ways, this footage from The Thing feels like a gesture of defeat, an admission that stories of white survival can no longer command the cinematic cache they once did. That defeatism percolates all the way through The Lodge, which is the kind of film that empties itself as it goes, producing a similar sense of anomie and interminability to I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Halfway through, Grace wakes up, and realises the entire house has been emptied out and shut off from the outside world – the dog is gone, the pipes are frozen, the power has been aborted, the fridge is empty, and her personal possessions have all vanished.
This evisceration of the house comes after Grace has a dream of being totally alone in the midst of the frozen lake, and is followed by the most abstract scene on the lake, as she and the children search for the dog. Between the empty house and the empty lake, the film settles into the same white ennui as I’m Thinking of Ending Things, as the three characters lose all sense of time, and then question whether they are alive or dead. With no access to her medication, and with severe hypothermia, Grace starts to hallucinate. The third act takes place in her head, juxtaposing the drab emptiness of the house with evangelical interludes.
Finally, we learn that this has all been a prank by Mia and Aidan, but by the time they get Grace back on her meds, it’s too late, especially since they’ve been pretending to be dead, which was also a key element of her father’s cult. To its credit, The Lodge ends as grimly as it begins, with Grace killing Richard, preventing the children escaping, and then forcing them to sit down to one final family dinner, across the table from their father’s corpse, before killing them too. There’s no resolution or restoration of the family unit, and only Grace is left as both intrusive stepmother and the final residue of the monstrous paternalism of her father’s cult.
This ending, and the entire rhythm of the final act, is quite reminiscent of The Shining, but Franz and Fiala hold back from the charisma of The Shining, which assured us that the white nuclear family, while self-destructive as an institution, was at least extravagant in its self-destruction. Here, by contrast, the cult totally supersedes the family – or the cult of family supersedes the actual family – for an ending that’s closer in spirit to the new version of Pet Sematary, or the drab family annihilation that ends The Strangers. Even though it’s not really my kind of horror, I had to credit the steeliness of that vision, and the nihilistic grimness of the film as a whole – easily one of the most unremitting releases of the last couple of years.