Set during the winter holidays, a divorcee leaves his children and new fiancée awaiting his return in a remote family cabin. But when the generator stops working and with no one for miles. The terror creeps in as determined as the winter cold.
There are a lot of mixed feelings in the horror and film communities about this movie, but I found it strangely compelling. There are definitely supernatural elements, but the story focuses primarily on loneliness, isolation, and cruelty.
If you haven’t seen this movie, you should definitely watch it before reading further.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
The Lodge begins with a death. We witness a violent suicide, leaving two children, Mia (Lia Mchugh) and Aiden (Jaeden Martell), traumatized. Worse, their parents were separated at the time, and their father had already filed for divorce. With the pending divorce being the clear catalyst, this creates a deep divide between the children and their widowed father Richard (Richard Armitage). It’s a strong start that sets the tone for the film’s bleak view of family.
Richard pushes his children too far too fast, behaving as though their grief and anger is inconvenient. He wants to recreate his ideal family with the young wife and loving children. In one scene, he lashes out at Aiden for protesting the holiday getaway to a remote family cabin with a new plus one — Richard’s girlfriend. It’s clear Richard wants no discussion, only obedience. And in this moment, we see the root of the film’s thesis — that forcing children to comply without tending to their trauma and needs is a sure way to breed resentment and a cruelty.
Richard, already torn between the desire to move on in the relationship and the need to let his family grieve, is ready within a few months to introduce the children to their future stepmother — the one he was seeing during his separation from his deceased wife. It doesn’t take long for him to force the interaction. The remote cabin getaway is his idea, and only he is comfortable with it. To make matters worse, he drives everyone to the remote cabin, the leaves them to finish work in town for a day or so. This pits the children against well-meaning Grace (Riley Keough) while Richard pushes forward, determined to have the life he wants even though his children clearly aren’t ready. When he drives the group to the family cabin for the holidays but doesn’t return immediately, the animosity between the children and their reluctant caretaker grows.
The situation spirals when Grace, begins noticing strange phenomena. First, all the food in the house goes missing. The power is cut. Then her medication vanishes.
If you’ve gotten this far and wanted to avoid spoilers, turn back. Because the children are the ones tormenting her. In a Turn of the Screw fashion, the children use cruelty and gas lighting to isolate and manipulate their soon-to-be stepmom’s perception of reality, hoping to sabotage her relationship with their father. They know she has a mental illness, and try to make her question what she sees and experiences. They expect her to sit in her room and cry, their father to come home, and for her to demand to leave. They expect to just drive away their perceived problem.
What happens, though, is far more less predictable.
It turns out Grace too was deeply traumatized as a child. In her case, she grew up as part of a death cult. Abused, brainwashed, and left the sole survivor, she has worked hard to overcome her self-loathing and the violent beliefs the learned so young. In both cases, fathers have callously neglected and forced their beliefs onto their children. But in Grace’s case, the situation is compounded by her mental illness. Without her medication, cold, hungry, and surrounded by hostility and mind games, she doesn’t have the ability to push the cruel voice of her father away. Her self-loathing bubbles over onto religious fervor, and the children find themselves unable to control the storm they’ve unleashed..
Plenty of people claim the film is boring or bad. These are subjective, but if pushed, people will cite their discomfort with Richard’s casual cruelty, with Grace’s sudden spiral, with the children being the villains. These are all fair points. Approaching this film as a psychological thriller with horror elements helps make sense of it though. In essence, this is a story about isolation and distrust, about how family and trauma are linked, and about how centering on one’s own trauma at the expense of others can trigger someone else’s traumatic experience, and the results can be horrendous fantastic.
I think part of why this film has gotten a negative reception in the horror community is that it falls back on religious zealotry and mental illness as a blanket excuse for Grace’s actions. It stigmatizes mental illness and the mentally ill as inherently dangerous or violent. In this film, Grace is just a few bad days away from a violent breakdown that gets everyone around her killed. But looking at the film through a lens of trauma and triggering though brings a new perspective. The children are caught up in their rage. They’re angry at their mother for succumbing to suicide and leaving them with the obviously less-likable parent. They’re angry at Richard for refusing to listen, for forcing this meeting, and for replacing their mother — they clearly blame him for their mother’s death.
But these emotions are uncomfortable. And so Aiden and Mia fixate on an easy target: Grace, the stepmom in the making who desperately just wants to fit in. They hate her existence. She can be as nice and respectful as possible, sacrifice anything, but it will never be enough. At this stage in their grief, she is the problem. They plot to push her into madness or death, and succeed. The audience is encouraged to hate them, to be frustrated. And so when Grace ventures out into the blizzard to seek help, wrapped in a long blanket and looking much like a saint on pilgrimage, the audience is there with her. We understand the notion of trying but being shot down, hated, rejected. Of being the only person in the room who doesn’t belong, isolated from the means to contact anyone or see a friendly face. It’s quarantine strain taken to the worst extreme.
But beyond the plot, the color palette is gorgeous. The acting is fantastic, enough that I want to follow up with Keough and her future roles. There’s a self-flagellation scene that gave me chills. It definitely has the spooky factor and all the elements of a solid horror film. Yet, people say it’s boring, too slow, or that they just didn’t care for it.
So why are audience reactions mixed?
Well, a dog died. That always gets audiences angry.
It’s also a bit slow, admittedly, but if you go in expecting few jump scares and a focus on character, setting, and perception then you won’t be disappointed. And honestly, I’ve sat through plenty of horror movies that move much slower. I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House (2016) moves at a snail’s pace, but I was riveted every moment, and the general consensus is that it’s a solid film.
But also we’re in quarantine now. People are turning on each other, and perhaps this film hits too close to home. It’s all too easy to press each others buttons and lash out when we’re frustrated with the world. We can’t do anything about it, and so we hurt ourselves and those we love. And when that rage becomes turns on us, we suddenly realize we pushed too hard, went too far. But the damage is already done.
It could be interpreted as a negative stereotype, that all it takes is one misstep for a person with mental illness to completely turn on others. But the cabin fever scenario hits hard. And the notion that people can be pushed by other’s casual cruelty to do unspeakable things is important in this time of infinite callousness and cruelty toward each other.