Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s horror movie/psychological thriller The Lodge attempts a magic trick. It’s easiest to understand in terms of how Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige explains stage magic in three acts: In the first act, “the pledge,” the audience is presented with something ordinary. In the second, “the turn,” that ordinary thing becomes extraordinary. In the third, “the prestige,” a bigger reveal or flourish occurs. The Lodge only nails the first two acts.
The “pledge” part of the film (which opens with a Hereditary-esque journey through a deceptively realistic dollhouse) is a small, ordinary domestic drama. Richard (Richard Armitage) tells his long-estranged wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone) that he intends to finalize their divorce and marry his much younger girlfriend Grace (Riley Keough). Laura self-destructs, turning her children Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) against their new stepmother. On top of blaming Grace for their mother’s despair and their parents’ divorce, they also mistrust her after realizing she was once a subject of their father’s research. At age 12, Grace was the only survivor of a mass suicide led by her father, who meant for her to spread his cult’s message to the rest of the world.
For the opening act of The Lodge, Grace is mostly obscured, a figure seen quickly turning away from a window or disappearing through a door, or as a shadow seen through frosted glass. The obscurations make her come across as a monster — even if she hasn’t done anything deserving of animosity, the children’s distrust of her is palpable. She only appears fully when Richard takes them all on a holiday to the family’s winter lodge. And as her image becomes clear, so does the fact that this is a story playing out from her perspective, not the children’s. The turn is that we’re seeing a classic fairytale setup play out in reverse, and Grace is the protagonist, not the villain.
In most fairy tales, the stepmother is mistrusted and reviled as a presumed danger to her new stepchildren. Here, the audience is asked to understand her — she wants to get along with these kids, but their hostility only increases her anxiety and instability. The shift in POV happens gradually, as the family gets used to the lodge and Grace does her best to ingratiate herself. In her interactions with Aidan and Mia, she slowly becomes more sympathetic, and the film’s POV adjusts accordingly.
It’s a marvelously subtle change in direction and expectations, and a promising sign for the meat of the story, as Richard leaves the unfortunate trio alone in the lodge just in time for a blizzard to arrive. The story takes a supernatural turn as Grace’s medication and other key objects begin to disappear. The initial descent into madness is wonderful. As with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, it’s unclear whether the increasingly strange happenings are real, or products of cabin fever, and the uncertainty makes the downward spiral all the more compelling. But unlike Eggers, Franz and Fiala provide a clear answer, and in the process, they rob their film of its power.
It’s the cinematic equivalent of seeing a magic trick explained. There’s some fascination and merit to seeing behind the curtain, but exposing how the trick was done can diffuse what makes magic or art so effective. It also, in this case, lends a sense of shallowness to the religious fervor threaded throughout the story, from Laura’s fervent Catholic faith (and Mia’s fear that she won’t make it to heaven) to Grace’s lingering discomfort with the religious icons prominently displayed throughout the family lodge.
Franz and Fiala smooth over some of those wrinkles by virtue of style. There’s a clinical effect to their visuals that recalls Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Favourite), as characters are framed against sparse backgrounds, and the camera lingers on awful sights. The filmmakers also save any loud sound or music until they absolutely need it. But the story fails their key component: Keough. It’s up to her to sell just how dire things are becoming, as Grace has the most concrete reason to fear she’s losing her grip on reality. Keough handles that burden magnificently. However, as the filmmakers make what’s happening more obvious, they pull the audience out of Grace’s head, rather than seeing the story through with her, as the initial turn suggested. The external version of the story is inherently less interesting than Grace’s much more colorful perspective.
At the end of The Prestige, Michael Caine re-explains the three-act structure of a magic trick. Regarding the prestige, he says people watching magic think they want to know the truth behind the trick, but they actually don’t: “You don’t really want to work it out. You want to be fooled.” The Lodge reveals its hand too early, and too clearly. The magic disappears, and the prestige falls flat.
The Lodge is in theaters now.