‘The Lodge’ Film Review: Disappointing Thriller Confuses Ugliness with Scariness

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No matter how violent, how disturbing, or how controversial a horror movie gets, it’s important to remember that, at its heart, horror is a fundamentally sympathetic genre. We cannot feel afraid for people if we do not care about and associate with them. And we absolutely cannot care about any of the people in “The Lodge,” because whenever they’re in danger, directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz are looking the other way.

When children are in danger, “The Lodge” expects us to worry about the adults who may be putting them there. Then when a character is specifically, legitimately victimized, “The Lodge” suddenly expects us to care more about their victimizer’s safety. It’s a film that goes out of its way to worry about whoever deserves our sympathy the least, and as such it’s never truly horrifying. If anything, “despicable” is the right word.

“The Lodge” stars Jaeden Martell (“Knives Out”) as Aidan and Lia McHugh (“American Woman”) as his little sister, Mia. Their parents, Richard (Richard Armitage) and Laura (Alicia Silverstone) are getting divorced so he can marry his younger girlfriend, and that news goes over so badly that Laura kills herself. The children are devastated, and Mia in particular is inconsolable, believing her mother can never go to heaven.

What’s more, Aiden and Mia blame their father’s girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough) for their mother’s death, and she’s an easy scapegoat. On top of, as the kids view it, wrecking their parents’ marriage, Grace was also the only survivor of a horrifying mass cult murder, which makes her seem legitimately threatening. Aidan calls her a “psychotic,” and he’s especially worried about spending all of Christmas week with Grace in the family’s isolated cabin, while their father is off working in the city.

It’d be an awkward situation under any circumstances, but Grace tries her hardest to fit in with her would-be stepkids, and to find a place in a house full of religious iconography that makes her genuinely uncomfortable. Her dreams are restless and filled with nightmares, and when she wakes up and discovers the power and water aren’t working, and all of their possessions — including her many pills — are missing, it sets her on a dangerous path.

Where did everything go? Why can’t they contact the outside world? “The Lodge” wants us to question who, if anybody, is responsible for this disturbing sequence of events, and to consider the possibility that perhaps — just perhaps — something genuinely supernatural is to blame.

But whether you believe these characters are the victim of a threatening outside influence or not, “The Lodge” exerts most of its energies suggesting that Grace herself is the greatest threat to this family. Maybe she was always a danger, or maybe she’ll be driven there by outrageous circumstances and withdrawal from her much-needed mental-health medications. Either way, Fiala and Franz’s film plays out like a carnival sideshow where we’re just waiting for the star attraction to snap and attack their handlers.

Fiala and Franz’s last film, the creepy and conceptually similar “Goodnight Mommy,” was also about two kids trapped in an isolated house with a matriarch they couldn’t trust. But “Goodnight Mommy” focused entirely on the experience of the children. We understood the nature of the threat, if only from their limited perspective, so we knew when to feel suspense or dread.

In “The Lodge,” the perspective shifts back and forth, shattering any sense of engagement. When the children are stuck at the cabin with their would-be stepmother, and the whole plot revolves around questioning whether she’s going to turn on them at any moment, “The Lodge” focuses exclusively on Grace and her sense of innocent confusion. The whole second act hinges upon the audience worrying about Aidan and Mia’s safety, but they’re practically an afterthought, robbing the film of all its power.

And when “The Lodge” finally reveals its hand, and confirms exactly who we should have been worried about this whole time, the perspective shifts again, away from the victim(s) and to the victimizer(s). The only consistency to be found in Fiala and Franz’s movie is that they treat Grace’s mental health issues like a time bomb. It’s such a one-sided view of mental illness that the whole film winds up feeling merely exploitative instead of genuinely scary.

The star of “The Lodge” is Keough, who navigates a tricky storyline that waffles back and forth about whether or not she deserves our sympathies. The actress imbues Grace with a dignity that the rest of the film is nervous about affording her, to the extent that if the film works at all, it’s because she had a better sense of her character than the twist-laden storyline does. Martell and McHugh have less luck, since no matter how hard “The Lodge” tries to make us care about them, they spend almost the entire film being, at best, extremely rude and insensitive human beings, children or no.

It would be nice to report that “The Lodge” is at least stylish enough to compensate for the deficiencies in its storytelling, but the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) is hamstrung by the icy exteriors, gloomy light and stark location. The editing by Michael Palm (“Goodnight Mommy”) does a better job of finding unexpected scares, by luring the audience into banality before shocking us with seemingly non sequitur eerie imagery, but the problems with the film are too far down in the roots to be affected by Palm’s pruning sheers.

“The Lodge” seems to be confusing ugliness with scariness, as though horror demands little more than thrusting the viewer into an environment of discomfort and cruelty. But that’s a simplistic take on the genre, and one that limits the movie’s ability to manipulate our emotions and to explore its themes of religious anxiety and mental well-being. It’s a frustratingly superficial, judgmental, surface-level thriller that undermines all its scariest moments by getting distracted at all the wrong times.