The Lodge (2020)

A few years ago, I did a write up on Goodnight Mommy, the debut fictional film of directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, which the duo have followed up on with The Lodge; there’s a really great fake title that I would love to give to The Lodge that fits perfectly but spoils the ending. I would love to give it away here, but I’ll refrain (but look for it in the tags of this post). Originally slated for release at the end of last year, I assume it was moved to an early 2020 release date to avoid competing with Doctor Sleep for the contender of heir apparent to the legacy of The Shining (they needn’t have bothered, given that nobody bothered to see Doctor Sleep despite it being great). Like The Shining before it, The Lodge delves deep into manifesting loneliness and isolation, and the maddening affects thereof, as a vast wintry landscape with no apparent end in sight.

Teenage Aidan (IT and Knives Out‘s Jaeden Martell) and younger sister Mia (Lia McHugh) Hall are displeased at their father Richard (Richard Armitage)’s plan to marry Grace (Riley Keough). Their mother Laura (Alicia Silverstone) took the news that Richard planned to finalize their divorce and remarry more poorly, killing herself and leaving young Mia inconsolably and existentially terrified about the fate of her mother’s soul, which Richard is ill-equipped to handle. He plans to move forward with his relationship with Grace regardless, and, intent on getting the kids to bond with her, takes the whole family to their remote Massachusetts lodge for Christmas. The Hall children are understandably (if unkindly) suspicious of Grace because of her past: at age 12, she was the lone survivor of a mass cult suicide that was orchestrated by the cult’s fundamentalist leader, her father; she and Richard met because she was the subject of one of his books*. Richard leaves the three alone in the titular lodge while he attends to a work obligation and plans to return before the holiday.

It’s not a pleasant time for Grace. She decorates the lodge for Christmas as the kids sullenly choose not to help her. The abundance of Christian iconography on the walls (a portrait of Mary that hangs over the dining table, crucifixes all over the place) also triggers her PTSD, and even her medication doesn’t prevent her from having recurring nightmares featuring images from her childhood. As she dreams, she relives the experience of finding the dead bodies of her father’s followers, mouths duct-taped and adorned with the word “sin” and covered with purple cloths, and she is haunted by the image of her father’s maniacal face and firebrand evangelism. Aidan is the most hostile, but Mia starts to warm to Grace and befriends Grace’s dog Grady (also the name of the previous caretaker of the Overlook in The Shining) and after Grace falls through ice and nearly drowns while retrieving Mia’s doll, a replica of the girl’s dead mother. Keough delivers a nicely understated performance in a scene in which she tells Mia about wanting a dog when she was young and how her father forbid her from having anything of her own, and that Grady represents her independence and self-reliance.

Snowed in on the night of the 22nd, the trio falls asleep around a gas heater during a double feature of The Thing and Jack Frost. When they awake the next morning, the Christmas decorations have disappeared, as has all of the perishable food, as well as everything of Grace’s. Aidan tells Grace that he dreamt that the family suffocated. Grady has disappeared, the power is out, clocks seem to have jumped ahead to January 9, and all of the phones in the house are dead. Without her medication, Grace’s mental state deteriorates rapidly, and she eventually attempts to walk to the next town for help despite the children warning her that she’ll never make it. After encountering a seemingly abandoned cross-shaped building in the endless snowscape and imagining that her father is inside, Grace is heartbroken to find that she has walked in a great circle and found herself back at the lodge with the kids. Aidan tells Grace that they are dead and in purgatory, and evidence begins to mount that this might be the case.

The Lodge is a pretty decent horror film. I’m a philistine who still hasn’t managed to see Fury Road, so my only exposure to Keough’s previous acting is that episode of Riverdale where Archie and Jughead are riding the rails to escape Hiram Lodge’s wrath (DO @ me if you want to talk Riverdale, dear readers). She carries this film, and young actress McHugh also delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance. Martell is well cast even if the role isn’t terribly demanding on a performative level; there’s not much to Aidan other than “teenager who hates his incumbent stepmother.” Martell’s boyishness lends Aidan an air of innocence; the audience isn’t sure if his actions are merely born out of teenage frustration and grief or some greater malice. Armitage is serviceable in his role as Richard, which is fine. You don’t have much sympathy for a guy who is an incredibly poor father and selectively observant as a partner. He doesn’t seem to be aware that Grace is on extremely vital medication for her issues, is incapable of consoling (or even comprehending) his daughter’s concerns about her mother’s seeming damnation, and sees no issue with leaving her alone with his children (who hate her) for a prolonged period of time. Instead of easing them into the concept of accepting Grace as his new life partner, he pulls emotionally manipulative stunts on them like inviting her to holiday dinners without giving the kids time to prepare themselves for this upset. Since he knows full well that he will likely have to work during the holidays, he essentially sets up a situation in which his children will be left alone with his fiance, like an experiment to see if he can be as far removed from the situation as possible while all of the unpleasant parts that make up the beginning of acceptance take place and he can swoop in and be around for the good stuff. He’s a truly despicable character, and I appreciate both that the film doesn’t shy away from that and that Armitage plays him as a person who really and truly does not realize that he’s a garbage human being.

The weakness of the film is largely in its unevenness. Grace is largely unseen for the film’s first act; when Laura arrives to drop off the kids at Richard’s house for his custody time, she sees Grace’s silhouette through a window and the back of her head as she leaves through a back gate (this is after Richard promised her that Grace would not be present when she arrived, and even lies about whether Grace had been there recently at all). When the kids dig through their father’s research for more information about Grace, we only see her as a child. When Richard attempts to “spring” Grace on the kids at Thanksgiving, we only see her through frosted glass as Richard apologizes and sends her away. All of this is counterposed against Mia’s story. Mia loves and loved her mother, even going so far as to create doll versions of the whole family, which she moves about in an ornate dollhouse that replicates the title location. At her mother’s funeral, when the grieving release balloons in memory of the deceased, Mia frantically tries to tie the ribbon on her balloon to the doll’s hand so that it can get to heaven, metaphorically, and when her balloon drops while the others float away, it devastates her. After all, is that not the metaphorical image of her mother failing to get to heaven, just as Mia fears is already the case, given how Catholicism defines suicide?

When we finally meet Grace in the flesh, it’s as if the narrative wants to say, “Hey, look, she’s not so scary after all. She’s just a person.” I wish that this worked, that we had been dwelling in the perceptions (and preconceptions) of the Hall children up to this point and that the reveal that Grace is a perfectly nice person was a shock. One could argue that this is the point, but the children never seem to fear Grace. They hate her, they blame her for their mother’s death, but they never seem to be afraid of her (until it’s too late). That end of Act I/beginning of Act II switch then makes Grace the main character, and Mia moves mostly into the background as the film becomes more about the conflict between Grace and Aidan, with his sullenness and inappropriate behavior (like watching Grace shower) making it more difficult to sympathize with him, while Grace makes an admirable attempt to maintain her composure and sanity as she withdraws from her medication and starts sleepwalking and hearing her father’s voice. Is it just her PTSD? Or is it something more?

You get the answer to that question, but I had the same problem with this one that I had with Goodnight Mommy; in that review, I mentioned a commenter on another site’s review of the film who advised that “If you haven’t guessed [the plot twist] by ten minutes in, you haven’t seen a movie before.” Luckily, you get a fair bit further into The Lodge before the “twist” becomes obvious; I was along for the ride until the clues started to pile up in one direction. There’s also more to the falling action here than there was in the duo’s previous film: by the time you learn “the truth” in Goodnight Mommy, there’s barely ten minutes left to explore the ramifications of that, but The Lodge lets the cat out of the bag at the beginning of Act III and spends more time on consequences. It’s unfortunately predictable, but it wears its horror influence on its sleeve, and there are no bad performances, with McHugh and Keough providing a strong backbone when the strength of the narrative atrophies a little. There’s no rush to see it on the big screen, but it’s worth a watch.

* According to the Wikipedia plot synopsis, Richard is an investigative journalist. The film does not make this completely clear; both I and my companion thought he was a psychiatrist or psychologist, and had specifically treated Grace (the only line of dialogue that we really get which clarifies their relationship is an offhand reference one of the kids makes to Grace being in one of their father’s books). Richard is a terrible father, and we didn’t put it past him that he would have a relationship with a patient. Him being a journalist makes slightly more sense and is less ethically questionable, but he would have to be making medical professional money to afford both a lodge and such a fancy modern house.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Logan Lucky (2017)

I imagine a few outsiders are likely to be offended on The South’s behalf for the way the region is depicted in Steven Soderbergh’s latest heist picture. A self-described Oceans 7-11Logan Lucky stages an elaborate robbery of a NASCAR racetrack with the same technical intricacy of Soderbergh’s more lavish crime pictures, except now with the Southern-fried flavor of a Masterminds or Talladega Nights. A Louisiana native himself, Soderbergh feels intimately familiar with the Down South culture of his North Carolina & West Virginia settings, even peppering in references to LSU football as a callback to his Baton Rouge roots (which are more immediately perceptible in titles like Schizopolis & Sex, Lies, and Video Tape). Speaking as a lifelong Louisiana resident who’s familiar with the camo sweatpants & Bob Seger t-shirts country where Logan Lucky is staged, I personally found the film to be far more loving than satirical. Characters may awkwardly reference “knowing all the Twitters” or “looking it up on the Google” in their comically thick Southern accents, but the movie is genuinely invested in their emotional & financial hardships even while having a laugh at colloquialisms. Soderbergh may be making fun of his characters to an extent, but it’s in the way of an older brother ragging on their younger sibling. It’s done out of love & an unavoidable compulsion.

I’ve personally never seen an Oceans movie so I can’t directly compare Soderbergh’s sleek money-makers to Logan Lucky in terms of how they function as elaborate heist plots. I will say that there’s a laid-back, distinctly Southern vibe in the way the film builds up to its NASCAR track heist centerpiece that I doubt was integral to when he was filming beautiful movie stars robbing casinos in tuxedos. That slow Southern drawl delivery leaves a lot of room in the first two acts for character-based humor, however. Channing Tatum & Adam Driver star as two blue collar brothers who mastermind the NASCAR heist with a limited set of technical skills, but an intimate knowledge of how the facility’s money is stored & accounted for. Although Logan Lucky is a notable departure from the Oceans movies’ sleekness, it does feel like a direct continuation of Soderbergh’s previous collaboration with Tatum, Magic Mike. Both films can be wickedly fun in spurts, but also dwell on the dismal economic landscape suffered by modern American Southerners. Instead of struggling as a male stripper trying to make it out of the business, Tatum is a construction worker who’s let go for not disclosing a pre-existing medical condition, but desperately needs money to be able to afford his right to visit with his young daughter. Along with his bartender brother (Driver) & his hairdresser sister (Riley Keough), he intends to shatter a local superstition about his “family curse” by stealing a large sum of cash from an insured corporation that can stand to lose the money. As an audience, we never get the detailed plan of the heist until it’s entirely over, but rather take the time to get to know the Logan family in the weeks before they pull the trigger on their NASCAR-robbing ambitions. It’s easy to equate that kind of lead-up to traditional Southern Hospitality, which I believe to be a genuine impulse here.

Although I was often the only lunatic laughing in the theater, I do believe one of Logan Lucky‘s greatest strengths is its muted, character & setting derived sense of humor. A stranger accusing Tatum’s protagonist of being “one of them Unabomber types” because he doesn’t carry a cellphone or a smash cut from cockroaches to frying bacon had me cackling so much in the film’s first act build that I was in no rush to get to the payoff of its NASCAR heist. Admittedly, some of the humor in that build-up was in hearing ludicrously thick Southern accents attempted by big shot movie stars: Tatum, Driver, Keough, Daniel Craig, Katherine Waterson, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank (the last two of whom were tasked with similar caricatures in Sam Raimi’s The Gift), etc. Those accents are just one facet of Soderbergh’s larger scope portrait of Everywhere, America that rests at Logan Lucky‘s core, however. There are so many distinct touchstones of Americana informing the film’s aesthetic: child beauty pageants, Katie Holmes drinking white wine in the doorway of her McMansion, off-hand references to Dr. Phil and the Fast & Furious franchise, an impassioned inclusion of John Denver music (in a year where every movie from Okja to Free Fire seems bent on honoring the long gone folk musician), and so on. It’s perfectly fitting, then, that the film pauses dead in its tracks for the National Anthem at the top of its centerpiece NASCAR race and makes frequent references to Memorial Day & American veterans. Anyone who’s made uneasy by the idea of a wealthy British actor dressing up in the guise of a poor American Southerner or the image of a pig feet dunking contest at a local fair is missing the larger picture of Soderbergh’s love for these characters and their environment. He’s having fun with them for sure, but not necessarily at their expense. The great joy of the film is watching them get one over on a larger corporation with the limited means of a discounted underdog; the movie is on their side.

-Brandon Ledet

It Comes at Night (2017)

In his debut feature, Krisha, young director Trey Edward Shults crafted an incredible level of tension & terror by staging a dramatic Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house. The wait to see what Shults could do with a bigger budget and a more straightforward horror tone has been blissfully short. His follow-up feature, It Comes at Night, has been pushed into wide release by modern indie distribution giants A24 and boasts recognizable actors like Joel Edgerton & Riley Keough (unlike Krisha‘s cast, which was mostly filled out by Shults & his family). First weekend horror audiences have been loudly disappointed by the film, saddling it with a “D” CinemaScore for not living up to their genre expectations, the same way a mass of people vocally derided The Witch, (our favorite film of 2016) upon its initial release. Do not be fooled by the grumbles & whines. Shults’s command of tension & terror is just as impressive here as it is in Krisha, even continuing that debut’s focus on familial discord & grief. The exciting thing is seeing that terror blown up to a slick, multi-million dollar film budget instead of a self-propelled scrappy indie production. 

Two young families struggle to survive a post-apocalyptic American landscape devastated by a deadly virus, a plague. This isn’t the outbreak horror of the more narrative-focused The Girl With All the Gifts, however. There are no zombies, no monsters, no transformations. The infected merely die, rot, and spread disease. The two families we get to know in this bleak scenario attempt to find peace & optimism in domestic cohabitation. They keep telling themselves everything will be fine, but there’s no indication that anything can or will ever improve. Edgerton’s paterfamilias often commands the room, setting firm rules on how to keep infected strangers & animals locked out of their peaceful, isolated cabin in the woods. It’s his teenage son who acts as the film’s de facto protagonist, though. Late at night, once the comfort of domestic routines and keeping busy fades away, the teen boy’s mind begins to wander into darkness. Anxieties over survival, sexuality, and sorrow for those already lost haunt him in hallucinatory dreams and late night walks through the house’s eerie hallways. What comes at night is not any kind of physically manifested evil, but rather an extreme grief for what’s already been lost and a dread for the violent, depressing end that’s fated to come in the near future.

Dream logic and nightmare imagery are a cinematic pleasure I never tire of and Shults does a fantastic job of building tension in these moments of subconscious dread. If It Comes at Night can be understood as the horror film A24 marketed it to be, those genre beats are wholly contained in the teen protagonist’s stress-induced nightmares. Nightmare imagery is not exactly unique territory for horror, though. Its presence in the genre stretches at least as far back as the German Expressionism movement of the silent era. What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to. Shults inexplicably stirs up that same level of anxious terror in Krisha, with the same deeply personal focus on familial discord, but It Comes at Night features a new facet the director couldn’t easily afford in his debut: beauty. The nightmares & late night glides through empty hallways are frighteningly intense, but they’re also beautifully crafted & intoxicatingly rich for anyone with enough patience to fully drink them in.

Not everything in It Comes at Night is disjointed dream logic & slow burn focus on atmospheric tone. There’s plenty of tense dialogue, creepy treks through the woods, gunfire, and desperate scavenging for food & clean water. Often, the film’s late night eeriness is used to quietly lull the audience into a false sense of safety before a loud, disruptive threat explodes onscreen. It can even be a visually ugly film when the moment calls for it, often lighting trees & hallways like a crime scene via rifle-mounted flashlights. I’m not surprised that first weekend audiences were frustrated by their expectations of a straightforward genre film, though. Edgerton is an amazing screen presence who once again wholly disappears into his role, somewhat anchoring the film in dramatic moments of disagreement with his wife & son. There’s no explicit explanation of his demeanor or plans, however, just like how there’s no expositional explanation of the history of the plague that has trapped his family in that cabin in the woods. The highlights of the film are more image-focused & ethereal: a triangle-shaped shadow, complex tree roots & branches, sweeping pan shots & drone-aided arials, an intense fixation on a red door that separates the family from the plague lurking outside.

The subtlety of It Comes at Night‘s overwhelming potency is never more apparent than it is at its violent climax. That’s when its aspect ratio gradually, almost unnoticeably constricts its action into an increasingly cramped frame that gets more constrictive by the second until there’s no room to breathe. It’s in that climax that you get the sense that Shults may just be a master in the making. Let’s just hope that the memory of that “D” CinemaScore fades away quickly enough for more production money to flow the director’s way. If he can craft such memorably terrifying, personally revelatory works on budgets this minuscule, I’d love to see what he could do with total financial freedom, general audiences be damned.

-Brandon Ledet