It's early yet, but I wouldn't be even a little bit surprised if The Lodge ends up being the most frustrating film I see in 2020. The film starts off amazingly well, with some unexpected and slithery character work, handing off the storytelling perspective from one character to another with absolutely no finesse, but so much blazing momentum that it works anyway. It presents a character drama on a subject that we've all seen a million times - the kids aren't okay with Dad's new girlfriend - but this it does finesse, in addition to having a cluster of really exemplary performances to base it on. It goes on about the business of being a horror-thriller at first entirely purely through style, not plot, so that a feeling of dread has a chance to soak into the domestic conflict, rather than crudely overwriting it. For its first or half or more, the film keeps all of this in balance so adroitly that I was ready to hope I was watching a new pinnacle of the 2010s art horror cycle, only slightly moderated by my suspicion that I knew exactly where this was going. And I was right. This ends up doing the only thing it could plausibly have done; any attempt to make the last quarter twistier or more surprising would have absolutely felt arbitrary and insulting. But at the same time, the place where the plot goes simply isn't satisfying, and by virtue of being so obvious from so far away, it gives one plenty of time to dwell on how unsatisfying it's going to become. Which is almost exactly the same problem I had with Goodnight Mommy, the last film written and directed by Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala (this time working with co-writer Sergio Casci), which I think will be a useful factoid to keep in mind for the next time that they have a movie on the horizon.

The Lodge's game starts by positioning itself as the story of a beleaguered mother, Laura (Alicia Silverstone), who is doing all the work of raising her kids, Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh), while their father Richard (Richard Armitage) is doing the whole midlife-crisis lothario thing with one of his research subjects. It happens to be Richard's weekend with the kids, a state of affairs that basically nobody likes, but it comes along anyways; this particular weekend, Richard wearily asks Laura if she'd mind finalising their divorce soon, as he's hoping to marry his girlfriend. After she's alone, Laura reacts to this news by calmly pouring herself a glass of wine, taking a big sip, and putting a bullet in her brain, in a sedate and soothing long take perfectly calibrated to make that moment hit like a ton of falling bricks. Exit protagonist #1.

Now the film is all about Aidan and Mia, trying desperately to keep things together despite being forced onto the father that doesn't quite know what to do with them, and that they don't quite love. But it's nothing compared to how much they hate his girlfriend, conspicuously kept off-screen and behind distorting glass and otherwise made out to be a somewhat ominous non-person. The morbid, autumnal mood of this sequence is oppressive: Franz & Fiala, working with cinematographer Thimios Bakatakis (who shot four films for Yorgos Lanthimos, and who brings the nauseating, oppressive, and precise compositions of e.g. The Killing of a Sacred Deer into this project, quite intact), make the film into a chain of diorama-like chambers, evoking Mia's dollhouse that comes in right at the start of the film, and sets up a motif of images that feel horribly close and warped, domestic spaces that seem to crowd in from every side with brown gloominess. I have never seen a shot of three people sitting at a table on an outside patio look as positively suffocating as the one that shows up with Richard makes his last play: he wants to take the kids and the girlfriend to a cabin in the woods for the week of Christmas, so they can all get a chance to know each other. And he'll also be leaving for a couple of days right at the start, to force the issue. Obviously nobody's excited, but at least his girlfriend, Grace (Riley Keough), who we finally see at this point, is willing to put on a happy face. And now she becomes our protagonist, right after Aidan and Mia obligingly break into Richard's research materials to confirm that yep, she's the only survivor of a Heaven's Gate-like fundamentalist Christian suicide cult, run by her own father.

This actually gets us barely into the movie at all: most of the film takes place during that very ill-advised vacation, where Grace, Aidan, and Mia very sullenly sit alone and don't talk, while a hell of a bad snowstorm keeps buffeting their very isolated lodge. Grace tries to keep everybody's spirits up, decorating the house for Christmas and trying her level best to cook for the kids, but everything starts to get very peculiar one morning when they wake up and literally everything in the house has gone missing. Including the pills that Grace needs to take for reasons that are never quite pinned down, but surely involve not going psycho-crazy in the woods. Which, if Aidan's claims of hearing her shuffling around all night are to be trusted, said psycho-craziness may already be starting.

Two films for the price of one: first a story of trying very hard to keep your traumatic past and emotionally abusive upbringing from poisoning the present, second a story of being painfully aware that your lover's children hate you and will always hate you, and it's not even entirely inappropriate that they do so. In both cases, the unifying logic is the spiritual and psychological terror of being forcibly trapped on the outside of human society, without the support of a loving family to help make it through the agonising thing called life. Setting this inside a murky, dark cabin surrounded by implacable austere whiteness of life-killing snow is a little on the nose, metaphorically speaking, but damned if it doesn't work. Keough is fantastic at letting little hints of desperation and self-doubt creep in around her effortful attitude, and Martell is good at being studiously unreadable, but in a way that lets us know exactly what he's thinking (McHugh is young enough, and the character straightforward enough, that the film just asks her not to fuck up - she does not). That, coupled with the severe contrast of the darkness in the overwhelmingly close and threateningly cozy lodge, and the fuzzy brightness of the snow, is enough to get us into a deeply unsettling psychological thriller, one that works mostly through sheer mood and disquiet. This is a frankly bizarre swerve for Hammer, the revitalised British horror production company that has spent most of its decade of rebirth focusing on paranormal horror with a psychological bent, not unabashed character dramas that are genre films more by tone than anything else, but it works supremely well, right on par with its obvious antecedent, Hereditary (no way is the dollhouse motif an innocent accident).

Up until it doesn't. I won't spoil anything, but a halfway-savvy viewer is certainly going to have no problem getting well out in front of The Lodge, and I have a hard time imagining many people being very glad they've done so. It's the correct ending, sure, but it's also not very illuminating, about the difficulty of blending familes or about the corrosive effects of religious guilt, and not at all interesting. And it sucks a lot of energy out of The Lodge that it otherwise just keeps building and building through its very satisfying and unnerving opening acts. I can't think of any possible solution to this other than scrapping the last three-fifths of the movie and starting over; but it is a little hard to love this as much as I thought I'd want to when it was firing on all cylinders. It just kind of grinds to a halt at certain point, and given the almost mythic quality of its early morbidity, I can't help but want more.