‘The Lodge’ is further proof that filmmakers aren’t dodging stories about mental illness (Movie review)

W

hen “Glass” came out about a year ago, it seemed like the last gasp of an era: No way would filmmakers continue to portray people with mental illness as villains after this. It’s not awfully PC, as a George Clooney-vintage Batman might say. But, speaking of Batman’s world, we got “Joker” later in the year. Love it or hate it, that film got people asking: Is the Joker bad because of his mental illness, or is he bad because he doesn’t have access to his medications? Is his behavior his fault or society’s fault?

“The Lodge,” now available on Hulu, places such questions against a low-key horror backdrop, while adding a dollop of old-time religion. Regardless of how mainstream cinema approaches psychological problems in coming years, we know the horror genre – at least the kind that skips theaters and sneaks onto streaming services – will always come through.

Regardless of how mainstream cinema approaches psychological problems in coming years, we know the horror genre – at least the kind that skips theaters and sneaks onto streaming services – will always come through.

An English film from the Austrian writer-director duo of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, “The Lodge” is not afraid to show that religion can be scary. But before it gets there, it effectively gives us enough different themes to chew on that we don’t know what its final statement will be.

A creepy wooden lodge and a northern New England snowstorm – Canada is the stand-in — give a strong sense of place. However, aside from one flinch-worthy use of hiding a person in shadow, this isn’t scary so much as it’s creepy. It’s about internal more than external horror. Ironically, because of that storm, everyone is stuck inside.

Riley Keough (“Under the Silver Lake”), who has made a nice career out of small roles in big films and big roles in small films like this one, is magnetic as Grace. She’s sympathetic, but we’d also want to keep 6 feet away from her even if we hadn’t heard of social distancing. Also off-kilter enough to make us wary is “Knives Out’s” Jaeden Martell as teenager Aidan, Grace’s stepson-to-be. And his kid sister Mia (Lia McHugh) seems unhealthily obsessed with her doll, which is an avatar for her deceased mother among her playhouse.

“The Lodge” ultimately makes a strong statement about the potential link between mental troubles and religion. I recommend it for people who enjoy this subset of horror, but I can’t speak further without issuing a SPOILER WARNING.

Grace is introduced to us as the girlfriend of Richard (Richard Armitage), who is technically a widower after his wife, Laura (Alicia Silverstone – nice to see her again), commits suicide. But they were in the process of divorcing, and Richard and Grace are working toward marriage. Aidan and Mia do not embrace this new member of the family.

So “The Lodge” is a little like “Hereditary” in that we go deep into a messed-up family that has shattered love at its core. But that’s a thematic red herring, because we soon learn Grace’s backstory: As a child, she was the lone survivor of a religious cult’s suicide ritual.

When one considers that Laura committed suicide, and that Richard is writing a book about the cult – which is how he met Grace – viewers’ brains go to all this peripheral weirdness. What’s more, Aidan spies on Grace while she’s showering (“Hormones,” he says by way of apology), but she also doesn’t lock the door and isn’t all that shook up by it.

And we can’t even trust Richard, the de facto audience surrogate in the sense that he behaves the most normally. I’m no expert on human psychology – unlike Richard, who is supposed to be, I think – but I know it’s a bad idea to leave your grieving kids with your girlfriend at a remote lodge while you go back to town for a couple days. Especially when they blame her for their mom’s death. Furthermore, if you are going to this place when a winter storm might hit, you should be more prepared.

A viewer can sympathize with everyone and also expect any of them to emerge as the nutso villain. “The Lodge” gets you thinking about possible twists to go along with that early surprise of Laura’s suicide. And it does deliver one more biggie. I was totally immersed in the “Lost”-ian idea of purgatory when we learn that Aidan and Mia have tricked Grace. They are not dead from smoke poisoning; the children simply moved all their stuff – including Grace’s essential pills – into a secret storeroom in order to stage an empty purgatory-scape for Grace.

By the time of this twist we’re somewhat in Grace’s mind. But if “The Lodge” is trying to make the viewer complicit with the villain (something “Joker” achieves, in my opinion), it doesn’t quite pull it off. We can snap back from the shock of the kids’ cruel trick, whereas Grace can’t. The kids learn a harsh lesson about taking pills away from a mentally unstable person.

Additionally, “The Lodge” makes a strong statement that religion can destroy someone’s mind. The filmmakers leave themselves wiggle room so they can say this is about a suicide cult and an individual person – not about all religions and all religious people. That said, “The Lodge” links religion and mental illness without telling us whether the chicken or egg came first, and that’s striking stuff regardless of how you feel about it.

Fiala and Franz might make great films someday, but I think “The Lodge” is a smidgen short. It’s stylish enough to mostly cover it up, but I noticed the magic trick’s workings: It gives us lots of possible directions so that the actual direction will be surprising. The misdirection patches over a story that’s not new – and past a certain point, it’s not even surprising. Still, as a sneaky slice of streaming horror on a service you’re already paying for, it’s well worth checking out.

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