You Gotta Have Faith: Severin & Fiala Mine Familial Madness in Warped Psychodrama
Reexamining similar themes of the inherent madness of isolation and the potential terrors of motherhood from their breakout 2014 debut Goodnight Mommy, Austrian directing duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala move into English language territory with The Lodge. Filmed in the wintry climes of Quebec (seconding for New England), a notable and minimalist cast fleshes out a similar scenario of matriarchal lunacy, which begins with a bang of bleak humor and then descends into an increasingly illogical labyrinth of questionable twists and turns. Breaking from its initial arch sensibilities in a prolonged second act, Severin and Fiala’s narrative bleeds itself dry with a self-seriousness requiring a bit more finessing in both character development and explication to avoid the madcap absurdity it falls prey to. Still, as an exercise in stark atmosphere with a winning streak of nasty, blasphemous subtext, there’s enough here to at least keep curious minds occupied as to what depths of depravity the film is willing to traverse.
After the tragic death of their mother (Alicia Silverstone), siblings Mia (Liz McHugh) and Aidan (Jaeden Lieberher) are staunchly opposed to their father’s (Richard Armitage) plans to marry Grace (Riley Keough), a much younger love interest who they blame for their parents’ separation. Aggressively opposed to accepting her role in their life, they’re suddenly forced to interact with Grace when their father leaves them alone with her in an isolated cabin for Christmas. When a winter blizzard further seals them in, strange things start to happen. Things which seem related to the children’s dead mother and Grace’s traumatic past.
The Lodge begins on a note of tongue-in-cheek bleakness, giving us all the cues we need to ascertain the mental state of Alicia Silverstone, fetishized by her daughter in doll form (which also becomes a prominent fixture in the film’s visual fabric). While the set design features an overdependence on parallels with a doll house (a la Hereditary, 2018), the early establishing characteristics work best with Silverstone’s character, a Christian woman whose skewed faith is much more perverted than the various icons and crosses decorating her exterior living spaces would suggest. A different dynamic is used for Keough, where we’re force-fed news stories and videos about the suicide cult she was the lone survivor of, led by her zealot father. And yet everything else surrounding Keough, including the actor’s performance, is a veritable blank slate save a few details hiding in plain sight, which eventually are used to conveniently explain her role as a faulty narrator as well as the ensuing descent into terror.
Featuring some choice jabs of discomfort, perhaps none more perversely staged than a fraught fall through the ice, The Lodge is keen on unnerving and disrupting, thanks in part to a superior score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. Some healthy chunks of scenery from John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) adds to the sense of menace, paralleling the dread of chaos unfolding in an uninhabitable wintry climate (though the real purpose of these clips seems to be for a line goading the direction of the film suggesting the dangers of cabin fever). But where The Lodge is most potent is where it breaks down the elements of what drives human towards a faith-based existence—fear. Severin, who’s married to one of cinema’s most consequentially atheistic auteurs (Ulrich Seidl of Jesus, You Know and Paradise: Faith), rivals his use of religion as a formidable trap, its most fervent proponents driven to mental imbalance and eventually violence. Sure, that’s maybe a slippery slope, particularly in a genre film which seems as equally happy to pounce on the destructive expectations of motherhood, but it’s there as a potent subtext, nonetheless.
Performances are routinely fine, with Keough doing her best as an inscrutable protagonist who is emphatically gaslit (if somewhat similar to her performance in the missed opportunity that was Jeremy Saulnier’s Hold the Dark, 2018). Silverstone, (as with her brief supporting turn in 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer), it turns out, proves to be a scene stealer in perverse genre items, while Richard Armitage fares well enough as a father foolish enough to leave his children alone with the sole survivor of a suicide cult. Unlike in Goodnight Mommy, the children are the weak point this time around, despite the performances of Jaeden Lieberher (It: Chapter One, 2017) and an entertaining Lia McHugh, concocting a ruse which outdoes the extravagance of the Home Alone franchise. Still, despite comparable shortcomings to their earlier title, Severin and Fiala are an alluring, entertaining directing duo and one desires to see where there dark-hearted interests lead them.
Reviewed on January 25th at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – Midnight Program. 108 Minutes