Sep 25, 2019

24FPS @ LFF 2019: The Lodge

This film is playing at the London Film Festival and was viewed at the press preview days. The festival runs from October 2nd-13th. You'll find a link to tickets at the end of this post. At time of writing, tickets are still available for the screenings on October 11th and 13th.

The Lodge
Dir: Veronika Franz/Severin Fiala
The poster for The Lodge is striking. It shows a single snowflake, blood running from its bottom point and forming an inverted cross. Like the film itself, it provides you with many of the ingredients you should expect to see, but also feels somewhat misleading.

Ten-year-old Mia (Lia McHugh) and her twelve-year-old brother Aiden (Jaeden Lieberher) have just lost their mother, and are forced into going on a pre-Christmas break to an isolated cabin with their father Richard (Richard Armitage) and his new girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). Richard has to head back to the city for a few days, leaving the kids with Grace, but once he leaves, strange and disturbing things begin to happen.

I am trying hard not to give any spoilers because Franz, Fiala and co-writer Sergio Casci have structured The Lodge cleverly. They play with our expectations, leading us down blind alleys not just in terms of story but even regarding what sub-genre the film will fall into. This begins with the pre-credits sequence, in which the camera creeps through a house, moving with a slowness that suggests we’re being set up for a ghost story, before Franz and Fiala pull out and reveal this is a doll’s house. These won’t be the last allusions to being set up for a haunting movie, and there are certainly a couple of presences that could be said to haunt the film to some degree, if not in a traditional sense. 

For a long time during the second act, as Grace and the kids are totally cut off in the cabin by snow and, perhaps, other forces, the directors allow us to think we’re well ahead of the screenplay. This can be a real problem for horror cinema; if we can see the scares coming then they’re not terribly scary once they arrive. Happily, boo scares aren’t what Franz and Fiala are doing here. Instead, they build atmosphere and dread during the second act, which isn’t at all undercut by the idea we might know more than the characters. Another thing we’re left to wrestle with, rather than having signposted for us, is the idea of who exactly counts as the ‘bad guy’ here. It could be said that Richard’s insensitivity, both before and after his wife’s death, makes him the villain, but it’s a very commonplace kind of villainy, while other candidates are more baroque in their plans but perhaps ultimately less culpable given certain considerations.

The first two acts of the film move slowly, and there’s an argument that getting everyone to the cabin and setting up the isolation sooner might be a good idea, but the pace of the first act does allow ample time for the impact of the events of the film’s first ten minutes on Aiden and Mia be felt through terrific work from both Lieberher and McHugh, as well as establishing the closeness of their bond as brother and sister.

The first act also has Grace almost as a ghostly figure. We see her from the back, or through a fogged door and the film seems to tease us with the idea that she’ll remain this remote presence the children will refuse to engage with. Of course, Riley Keough ends up as the film’s main character and it’s her performance that is the anchor. We know a little of her backstory before we meet her and Keough puts across the psychological trauma that lies in her past brilliantly as it becomes ever more a feature of the story. With each passing scene in isolation she grows ever more haunted and haunting and the film’s suspense ratchets up unbearably as we come to understand what is playing out with her character.

The direction is superbly controlled. The scenes in the cabin have a palpable feeling of cold and the imagery becomes strikingly more disquieting through the third act right up until the final shot. One recurring motif makes great use of depth, with interior spaces seeming to extend way back into the screen. We see this notably with the children’s mother at the beginning of the film, in Richard’s kitchen after dropping the kids off and when Aiden and Mia are hiding in the cabin’s attic towards the end of the film. In both cases it’s unsettlingly atmospheric.

I know not everyone has been sold on this film, but I very much enjoyed the way it consistently played with my expectations and the growing sense of dread Franz and Fiala achieve throughout. If it’s not quite as original as their debut, Goodnight Mommy, it is still an excellent and highly promising first English language feature.
★★★★

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