Review: ‘The Guilty’ (2021), starring Jake Gyllenhaal

March 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jake Gyllenhaal in “The Guilty” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Guilty” (2021)

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the dramatic film “The Guilty” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A police officer, who has been demoted to 911 operator duties, gets a harrowing phone call from a woman who says she’s in a vehicle and she’s been kidnapped, and the police officer breaks protocol to try to help her. 

Culture Audience: “The Guilty” will appeal primarily to people interested in thrillers that have many twists and turns, with some plot developments more believable than others.

Jake Gyllenhaal in “The Guilty” (photo by Glen Wilson/Netflix)

Gripping and tension-filled, “The Guilty” succeeds in creating a suspenseful story with good acting, even though some parts of the movie are hard to believe and seem too contrived. Unfolding in “real time,” it’s a story about an intense two-hour period in the life of a police officer while he’s on 911 emergency call operator duties. During the course of the story, he frantically tries to save an adult female caller who claims that her ex-husband has kidnapped her in a vehicle. “The Guilty” had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Nic Pizzolatto, “The Guilty” is a remake of the 2018 Danish film “The Guilty” (“Den Skyldige”), which was co-written and directed by Gustav Möller as Möller’s feature-film debut. By most accounts and critics’ reviews, the original Danish movie is better than the American version. However, the American version of “The Guilty” is still a satisfying thriller for anyone who can tolerate a movie where most of it is centered on a not-very-likable protagonist working as an emergency phone operator in a call center.

The American version of “The Guilty” adheres very close to the original story in the Danish version on “The Guilty.” There are some questionable things in the American version that might be more acceptable or overlooked in Denmark because of different laws and policies when it comes to emergency call operators and what cops can and cannot do while on duty. The American movie was filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic before a COVID-19 vaccine existed. Because almost the entire setting of the movie is a call center and consists of phone conversations, it turns out those were ideal conditions to film during a pre-vaccine COVID-19 pandemic.

In the American version of “The Guilty,” Joe Baylor (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a Los Angeles police officer who’s under a great deal of stress. Joe has been assigned 911 call operator duties because he’s been temporarily demoted. And he’s not happy about it. The reason for Joe’s demotion is revealed toward the end of the film. Joe has asthma and uses an inhaler. Not surprisingly, his asthmatic condition is aggravated by all the stress he goes through during the course of the story.

Even without this demotion, it’s obvious from the beginning of the film that Joe is someone with a short temper. When he gets a call from a bicycle rider who injured himself in an accident and has called 911 to request an ambulance, Joe scolds the injured person and tells him not to ride a bike when he’s drunk. And then Joe hangs up. Joe has no proof that the caller is intoxicated. His lack of empathy and the way he jumps to conclusions with anger are indications that he’s a “loose cannon.”

Adding to the stress level at the call center, a wildfire is raging in Los Angeles County, so there’s a shortage of emergency workers who can respond to calls that aren’t related to the fire. The 911 call center has TV monitors tuned into the local news to keep track of the wildfire situation. This wildfire is a plot development that was added to the American version of “The Guilty.”

Joe gets some other calls in the beginning of the movie that show how he’s ill-tempered and impatient with callers. When Joe talks to a male caller who’s having a panic attack, and the caller admits that he’s high on meth, Joe says he’ll send an ambulance as well as police to arrest him. The caller quickly hangs up.

Joe takes another call about a computer stolen from a rental car. He quickly determines that the caller whose computer was stolen was involved in a sex worker transaction that went wrong. Joe concludes that the sex worker probably stole the computer, so Joe is unsympathetic to the theft victim. Throughout the movie, viewers see that Joe cannot be an impartial phone operator and he acts like an investigative cop who reaches his own conclusions when he might not know all the facts.

The first big clue that Joe is involved in a high-profile matter is the movie’s opening scene, when he gets a call on his cell phone from a female Los Angeles Times reporter, who wants to interview him. Joe abruptly tells her that he has no comment, and he hangs up. People who work at call centers generally aren’t allowed to use their cell phones while they’re on duty in the call center, so it’s also the first sign that Joe thinks that the call center’s policies don’t really apply to him.

Joe’s sense of entitlement becomes even more apparent later in the story when Joe goes beyond what a 911 call operator is allowed to do, and he acts like a cop who wants to solve a case and be a hero rescuer. For example, emergency call centers, such as the one depicted in “The Guilty,” usually have a policy of using only the authorized, monitored phones to help a caller. But there’s a scene in the movie when Joe breaks this policy by sneaking off to an empty office room to make secret phone calls that can’t be recorded.

Joe is also standoffish or rude to any of the other 911 operators he interacts with, including a friendly co-worker named Manny (played by Adrian Martinez) and a supervisor named Riva (played by Becky Wu), who seems to just let Joe do what he wants because he’s a cop. The only time that Joe is shown being somewhat nice to his colleagues is when he wants a favor from someone. But even then, it’s only after he finds out that getting angry at them won’t help him get what he wants.

Even though he has a mostly dismissive attitude toward his work colleagues, there is one colleague whom Joe seems to care about: his cop partner Rick (voiced by Eli Goree), whom Joe later describes as his best friend. While Joe is at the call center, he calls his police supervisor Sgt. Bill Miller (voiced by Ethan Hawke) to ask how Rick is doing. What’s wrong with Rick that has gotten Joe so concerned about Rick’s well-being? That answer is also revealed toward the end of the movie.

It’s eventually shown that things aren’t going so well for Joe in his personal life. He’s been separated from his wife Jess (voiced by Gillian Zinser) for the past six months, and he doesn’t get to see their young daughter as often as he would like. Joe seems to want to get back together with Jess, but she’s very reluctant and seems to be fed up with him. During a phone call, Jess tells Joe that she won’t be there for his upcoming court appearance that’s happening the next morning.

Joe’s personal problems temporarily take a back seat when he becomes consumed with the kidnapping call. The female caller identifies herself as Emily Lighton (voiced by Riley Keough), and she says she’s been abducted by her ex-husband, who’s driving the two of them in a white van. Through some quick detective work of looking up the cell phone number that Emily is using, Joe finds out that the ex-husband is named Henry Fisher (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard), and Henry has a criminal record.

There’s an additional urgency to this phone call because Emily and Henry have two underage children who are home alone: a 6-year-old daughter named Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya) and an infant son named Oliver. The biggest problem in locating Emily is that she doesn’t know the license plate number of the van, and she doesn’t know exactly where she is on the road because she says she can’t look out of any of the van’s windows. The rest of the movie is about Joe’s race-against-time in his efforts to save Emily. There are some twists and turns (some more shocking than others) that happen along the way.

“The Guilty” requires some suspension of disbelief when showing Joe as the only person who seems to care the most about finding this alleged kidnapping victim. However, the movie’s plot addition of the wildfire happening at the same time does make it plausible that emergency responders have to give priority to the fire at that time. There are some parts of the movie where Joe steps way over the line of police ethics to play judge and jury. But when more details about Joe’s personal problems are revealed, it’s actually consistent with his personality and past actions that he acts this way.

Gyllenhaal is the only actor seen on screen for most of the film, so his compelling performance is effective in depicting this anxiety-ridden situation. The voice actors in the cast also perform capably in their roles. The last 15 minutes of the movie cram in a lot of melodrama that might have some viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief. However, stranger things and more melodramatic things have happened in real life, so the movie isn’t completely far-fetched.

After it’s revealed why Joe is going to court, a few questions remain unanswered at the end of the movie, such as: “How or why was Joe allowed to work in law enforcement in this capacity, considering what he’s being accused of in court? And what kind of attorney (it’s presumed that Joe has an attorney) would allow a client to work in this high-stress environment the day before an important court appearance?”

There are some believable explanations, of course. Maybe the police department didn’t want to suspend Joe, for whatever reason, and demoted him instead. And maybe Joe is the type of stubborn person who wouldn’t take an attorney’s advice and thinks he could handle working in a stressful job the day before his court appearance.

As for how realistically “The Guilty” depicts 911 call centers and 911 phone operators, the podcast Real Crime Profile interviewed two real-life former 911 phone operators to get their perspectives of the American version of “The Guilty.” (Spoiler alert: This podcast episode discusses everything that happens in the movie.) These former 911 operators say that “The Guilty” is mostly accurate.

Fuqua (whose directorial credits include “Training Day” and “The Equalizer” movies) and Pizzolatto (the Emmy-nominated creator of HBO’s “True Detective” series) are very familiar with telling stories about law enforcement officers who operate outside the law to solve a case or to get what the cops want. “The Guilty” tells an intriguing story, but some viewers might be bored that most of the movie takes place in one location, and the on-camera action mostly centers on a series of phone calls. People who can appreciate “The Guilty” the most are those who use their imagination, because a lot of the terror is what’s not seen on screen.

Netflix released “The Guilty” in select U.S. cinemas on September 24, 2021. The movie premiered on Netflix on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘Zola,’ starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough

June 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Zola”

Directed by Janicza Bravo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and briefly in Detroit, the comedy/drama “Zola” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A stripper-turned-waitress in Detroit meets and quickly befriends a scheming stripper, who entices to the waitress to travel to Florida to make easy money stripping for a weekend that ends up wilder than they both expect.

Culture Audience: “Zola” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramedies about the perils of being a sex worker that are raunchy and violent with a quirky and sometimes off-kilter vibe.

Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

The dramedy film “Zola” (directed by Janicza Bravo) has been getting a lot of comparisons to director Harmony Korine’s 2013 violent and hedonistic romp “Spring Breakers” and director Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 stripper crime drama “Hustlers.” It’s probably because all three movies, which blend carefree partying with an ongoing sense of danger, are about women unapologetically using their bodies and sex appeal to get what they want, as they have various levels of involvement with sleazy characters. “Zola” is not as hilariously bonkers as “Spring Breakers,” and it’s not as well-paced as “Hustlers,” but there are enough offbeat comedic moments and memorable performances for people curious enough to take this bumpy ride with two very different strippers.

The “Zola” screenplay, written by director Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, is based on a series of real-life tweets made in 2015 by A’Ziah “Zola” King, who went on an epic 148-tweet rant about her misadventures during a stripper road trip with a fast friend who eventually became her enemy. (The movie’s prologue has a statement that reads, “What follows is mostly true.”) In real life, this friend-tuned-foe is named Jessica Rae Swiatkowski. In the movie, her name is Stefani Jezowski.

And in the beginning of the movie, Zola (played by Taylour Paige) gets right to the point when she says in a voiceover: “You want to know how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Much of the comedy in the movie comes from the racial and cultural dynamics when Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough) end up clashing and getting on each other’s nerves.

Zola, who is African American, can best be described as a free spirit with boundaries. She has no problem with being a stripper, but she refuses to be a prostitute. She’s fun-loving but level-headed, trusting but cautiously jaded. Stefani, who is white, can best be described as someone with insecurities over her identity. Stefani desperately wants to sound like she’s a tough black person who’s “from the streets,” but she switches to an “innocent white girl” persona when it suits her. Stefani has no qualms about being a prostitute, and she’s very impulsive and manipulative.

Stefani (who is 21) and Zola (who is 19) meet one day when Stefani is a customer at the Detroit diner where Zola works as a waitress. (In real life, Zola worked at Hooters.) Stefani’s way of complimenting Zola is by telling her, “Damn, bitch. You’ve got perfect titties. I wish I had titties like that. They look just like little apples.”

Stefani’s date with her at the restaurant is a man named Johnathan (played by Nasir Rahim), who’s about 15 to 20 years older than Stefani. In reaction to Stefani complimenting Zola about Zola’s breasts, Johnathan says, “Oh, so you’re just going to pull that dyke shit in front of me and not include me.” Stefani replies like a gum-chewing teenager, “You’re so dumb!”

Stefani is so intrigued with Zola that she follows her into a back room for the diner’s employees only. Stefani tells Zola that she’s sure they’ve met somewhere before, so Stefani asks if Zola is a dancer. Zola says she used to dance, and Stefani’s eyes light up. She tells Zola that they should dance together sometime. Stefani also mentions that she’s a single parent to a daughter, whom she calls her baby, and shows Zola a picture of the girl.

In the beginning of the movie, there are hints that Zola and Stefani might be sexually attracted to each other. When they have their first conversation, the movie shows heart graphics on screen, as if there’s instant infatuation. Although it would be very predictable for Zola and Stefani to be openly bisexual and act on it with each other—a very common trope in stripper movies that are usually directed by men—Bravo doesn’t use that formula.

Instead, Zola’s attraction to Stefani is how easily Stefani can make someone feel like an instant best friend. Zola also seems fascinated by this woman who clearly wants to be accepted by the African Americans. And so, when Stefani calls Zola the next day to invite her to go on a road trip to Florida to make some easy stripping money, Zola is intrigued but doesn’t immediately say yes. Zola wants to know who else is going on the trip before she agrees to go on the trip.

One of the people on the trip is Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derreck (played by Nicholas Braun), who is very passive and has anxiety issues. The other person on this road trip is in the driver’s seat, literally and metaphorically: a Nigerian immigrant who doesn’t have a name in the movie but who is listed in the film credits as X (played by Colman Domingo), who switches back and forth between his Nigerian and American accents. A recurring joke in the film is that people keep bungling X’s real name when they say it, so it’s unclear what his name really is. In real life, the alleged pimp’s name was Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe.

Zola has a live-in boyfriend named Sean (played by Ari’el Stachel), who isn’t thrilled that Zola will be going back to stripping, even if it’s only for a weekend. Zola has sex with Sean to ease some of his disapproval. She also convinces him that the trip will be good for them because they need the extra money. And so, when Zola gets into the black Mercedes SUV with Stefani, X and Derrek, she’s feeling pretty good about this trip to Tampa, Florida. That feeling won’t last long.

Within 24 hours, Zola finds out that X is Stefani’s domineering pimp. And he wants Stefani and Zola to turn tricks for him. He’s the type of gun-carrying pimp who will take all or most of his prostitutes’ money, and say it’s for their “expenses.” And when Zola tries to leave, X threatens her and tells her that he knows where she lives.

One of the biggest flaws in the movie is how supposedly street-smart Zola couldn’t figure out a way to leave this bad situation, since she’s not being held captive physically (she’s never tied up or locked in a room), and X isn’t with Zola and Stefani all of the time. Zola has her purse with her at all times. Couldn’t she use a credit card, debit card or another method to pay for a way back home? And if she was afraid to call the cops, why didn’t she at least call her boyfriend Sean to tell him what was happening so that he could help her get out of there?

The movie isn’t concerned about letting Zola find a way to escape because it’s implied throughout the movie that a big part of Zola likes to seek out danger as a way to bring excitement to her life. Zola’s biggest regret seems to be that she misjudged Stefani, who at first seemed like someone Zola could trust as a friend, but ends up being someone who becomes extremely annoying and mistrustful to Zola.

The best parts of “Zola” have to do with some of the “ratchet” banter between Zola and Stefani. There are also some characters they encounter who bring some laughs. In a strip club dressing room, there’s a hilarious scene of a stripper prayer huddle, led by a “large and in charge” husky-voiced dancer named Hollywood (played by Ts Madison), where the strippers pray for men with “good credit,” “culture” and “big dicks.” The stripper named Hollywood acts like a melodramatic church preacher who’s praying for a miracle.

There’s also a recurring catch phrase that Zola says in a deadpan voice when she’s stuck in a room where Stefani is having sex with someone: “They started fucking. It was gross.” And during a scene where Zola is on a strip club stage and getting a bill tucked into her bikini bottom by a middle-aged white customer, he says to her with some excitement, “You look a lot like Whoopi Goldberg!” It’s the movie’s way at poking fun at white people who think that all black people look alike.

The movie also parodies the racial differences between Zola and Stefani, in a segment where Stefani gives her “rebuttal” version of what happened, based on a series of Reddit messages that are re-enacted in the movie. In Stefani’s version, she’s an innocent Christian girl who was led astray by a “trashy” black woman. In this re-enactment of Stefani’s version of the story, Stefani is wearing a conservative-looking pink skirt and blazer and Zola is literally wearing garbage bags when they get in the car on the road trip. It’s an obvious commentary on how the race card can be played in trying to manipulate people’s perceptions of who’s “guilty” and who’s “innocent,” based on someone’s physical appearance.

Just like in “Hustlers,” the lingering camera angles on the stripper activities and dancer bodies are meant to be more sensual than exploitative. Pole dancing is presented as an athletic art form that requires talent in balance and precision. And although Stefani and Zola both have sex scenes and stripper scenes, neither has full-frontal nudity in the movie. It’s a very “female gaze” film because only men have full-frontal nudity in “Zola,” during a montage where Stefani entertains a series of customers in a hotel bedroom.

Zola, Stefani, X and Derrek are an unusual quartet that will keep viewers interested in seeing what’s going to happen to them. And without the talents of the actors depicting these characters, “Zola” wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is vibrant and eye-catching. It was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” according to the “Zola” production notes. But how a movie looks won’t matter much if the movie’s characters don’t hold people’s attention.

Some of the movie’s editing gives “Zola” almost a hypnotic quality, particularly in scenes where Zola and Stefani stand in front of a mirror and seem mesmerized by their own images. As if to demonstrate how in sync they are before their friendship turns sour, there’s a scene where Zola and Stefani do their hair and makeup together with almost identical movements. However, as visually striking as many of the scenes are in “Zola,” the movie’s pacing tends to drag in the middle of the film.

There’s also a shady character named Dion (played by Jason Mitchell), whose intentions are telegraphed so blatantly, it leaves no room for suspense or mystery for why Dion is in the movie. He’s a stranger who chats up Derrek at the hotel where they’re staying at, and when Dion shows up again later in the movie, viewers won’t be surprised why. People can easily predict what can happen in any movie where a pimp with a gun carries around a lot of cash and makes it obvious that he’s traveling with prostitutes and no backup security people. The last third of “Zola” crams in an action scene that’s a little clumsily handled and fizzles out some of the naughty comedy that enlivens the movie.

“Zola” can also get a little too repetitive with the back-and-forth interactions of Stefani doing something to irritate Zola, and Zola reacting by calling her a “bitch” or some other insult. Derrek’s relationship with Stefani is exactly what you think it is: He’s madly in love with her and easily forgives her transgressions when she makes cutesy romantic talk to him. There’s no backstory of how Derrek and Stefani met and how long they’ve been together, but it’s clear that she’s not really in love with him and she’s just using him.

Very few movies can successfully balance violence and raunchiness with satire and emotional gravitas. “Zola” makes an attempt and often succeeds, but it’s a movie that might disappoint people who are expecting a more unique, madcap adventure. The movie also somewhat glosses over the real horrors of sex trafficking, just to get some cheap and tawdry laughs. Zola might be skilled at making sassy and salty remarks, but she’s got a lot to learn about being a truly powerful and independent woman.

A24 will release “Zola” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2021.

Review: ‘The Lodge,’ starring Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage and Alicia Silverstone

February 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell and Lia McHugh In “The Lodge” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“The Lodge”

Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. suburb, the psychologicial horror film “The Lodge” has a cast of characters that are white and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two underage children have resentment toward their father’s mysterious girlfriend, whom the children blame for their mother’s death.

Culture Audience: “The Lodge,” which is an arthouse version of a Lifetime movie, will appeal primarily to horror fans who like movies to be simple and very predictable.

Riley Keough In “The Lodge” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

If “The Lodge” were a Lifetime movie, the title would be “The Wrong Babysitter: Trapped in the Snow.” In their first English-language film, Austrian directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (the duo who helmed the chilling 2014 horror film “Goodnight Mommy”) have taken a concept that’s fairly similar to “Goodnight Mommy”—two children and a woman isolated in a house—and made a watered-down, formulaic version of that idea. That’s not to say that “The Lodge” is a terrible movie, because the actors elevate a very sparse screenplay, which was co-written by Franz, Fiala and Sergio Casci. But because “The Lodge” telegraphs the villain’s intentions so early on in the story, it’s resulted in an utterly predictable film that breaks no new ground whatsoever.

The beginning of the movie is the most interesting, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Laura Hall (played by Alicia Silverstone) is seen driving her two kids—17-year-old Aiden (played by Jaeden Martell) and 12-year-old Mia (played by Lia McHugh)—to a visit with the kids’ father, Laura’s estranged husband Richard (played by by Richard Armitage). As soon as they arrive, a tense Richard sends the kids off to get some candy at a nearby store because he says he wants to have a private talk with Laura.

During their conversation, Richard tells Laura that he wants to finalize their divorce because he wants to marry his girlfriend Grace. Laura’s devastated reaction indicates that she had been hoping that she and Richard were going to reconcile. The movie doesn’t come right out and say how long Richard and Laura have been separated and what caused their breakup, but it’s implied that Richard, who’s a newspaper journalist, left Laura for Grace, and it’s caused a lot of turmoil in the family.

That turmoil is evident in the car on the way to the visit, when Aiden makes it very clear that he despises Grace, because he tells his mother that he doesn’t even want to be around his dad’s girlfriend. Aiden dislikes her so much that he won’t even say her name. And when Richard and Laura are alone together at his place for their private talk, he reassures Laura before he begins the conversation: “She isn’t here.”

Within the first 10 minutes of the film, a tragedy occurs that results in Laura’s death. The heartbroken children find little comfort from their guilt-ridden father, because they partially blame him for their mother’s death. The other person the children blame is the mysterious Grace (played by Riley Keough), who doesn’t appear until about 20 minutes in the film, when Richard and the kids are about to take a family trip with her.

How did this fateful trip happen? Six months after Laura’s funeral, Richard nervously asks Aiden and Mia if it would be okay for Grace to come with them to their family lodge for the Christmas holiday season. The kids immediately say no. It’s not the response that Richard had hoped for, so he then puts the kids on a guilt trip by saying that they’re not giving Grace a chance to be a part of their family.

It’s at this time that Richard tells the children that he and Grace are getting married. And, of course, the kids take the news about as well as children being told that they have to live with an evil witch. Eventually, Richard loses patience with the kids’ stubborn refusal to accept Grace. He tells them that Grace will be spending the holidays with them at the lodge, so the kids have little choice but to accept those plans.

Before the trip, Aiden and Mia do some digging around on the Internet and find out that a rumor they heard about Grace is true: She used to be in a religious cult, where all the members except for Grace committed suicide when Grace was 12. There’s some eerie “found footage” of the mass suicide scene with Grace being discovered among the bodies, which have tape over their mouths and the word “sin” written on the tape. The kids also find Internet videos of the cult leader, a menacing-looking bearded priest, who’s portrayed in the movie by Riley Keough’s real-life father, Danny Keough.

Although the movie wants to establish that Aiden and Mia are bright young amateur detectives, this part of the story doesn’t have much credibility. In real life, the kids would’ve found out this information about Grace on the Internet as soon as they knew that their father was seriously dating her, and especially if that relationship broke up their parents’ marriage. It just doesn’t ring true that the kids would be curious about Grace’s background only after their mother’s death.

The kids don’t tell their father what they found out about Grace, which might seem odd, but that’s probably because the kids have a distant and tense relationship with their father since their mother died. It’s already been established that the children don’t like or trust Grace, and their father probably knows about Grace’s past but still wants to be with her, so the kids probably thought telling him this information wouldn’t change his mind. At any rate, neither Richard nor Grace discusses Grace’s past at all in this movie.

When Grace finally appears on screen, she seems to be the prototype of the “pretty younger girlfriend who ends up being a second wife.” But the way she’s written for this movie, she’s an incomplete sketch of a character. She’s generically pleasant on the surface, but there’s no mention of any interests that she has and what she’s doing with her life.

Although “The Lodge” screenwriters must have thought that keeping Grace so mysterious would benefit the story, it actually makes Grace a character that viewers won’t care about at all because she has no real personality. There’s no sense of how she was able to get into Richard’s life, what her previous relationships were like, and how she really feels about becoming a stepmother.

Grace is awkwardly polite to the kids as she tries to establish a rapport with them, but she also doesn’t acknowledge the impact that Laura had on the lives of the children and Richard. It’s almost as if she wants Laura to be erased from their lives—and that lack of empathy is a further indication of what Grace’s role is in this story.

However, there are so many questions that this movie puts forth but never answers: What was Grace’s life after the mass suicide? Why does Richard want to marry her, even knowing how much the marriage will hurt his kids? Is Grace just going to be a trophy wife or does she bring something more substantial to their relationship? Did she have any siblings? What were her parents like and how did they end up in the cult?

Because Grace’s personality is such an empty abyss and because the movie implies that she’s a “homewrecker,” it’s very clear that she’s going to be the story’s villain. And it’s also very obvious that things are not going to go well at the lodge when Richard suddenly has to leave for a few days because of a work-related matter, thereby leaving the kids alone with Grace. And before he leaves, he’s shown Grace the “family heirloom” gun and how to use it. To his surprise (but not to viewers’ surprise), she handles the gun like a pro during target practice.

And because these children are left alone with Grace, there’s only one way for the movie to go. The direction of the story is made even more obvious in the movie’s trailers. In the meantime, there’s a lot of flashbacks to the creepy leader of the cult, as his voice is heard echoing his stern orders: “Repent. Repent your sins.” There are some shadowy figures and strange messages scrawled on mirrors, but is it reality or it is something else?

When a blizzard hits the area, the power generator gets frozen, leaving the lodge without electricity. And that’s when weird things really start to happen. The contents of the refrigerator disappear. So do all the items in Grace’s drawers. And so does her dog that she brought on the trip. She blames the kids, who swear that they didn’t do anything wrong.

Riley Keough as Grace does a very good job with the limited character that she’s been given. Keough comes from a showbiz family—she’s the granddaughter of Elvis Presley and the eldest daughter of Lisa Marie Presley—and as an actress, she’s been doing solid appearances in mostly independent films. Martell (who’s best known for being in the “It” movies) is the movie’s other standout actor. He does a convincing portrayal of the emotionally wounded Aiden, who tries to be strong and protective of his younger sister. While Mia slowly warms up to Grace, Aiden never fully trusts Grace.

The pacing of “The Lodge” is meant to bring a slow burn to its suspense, but the movie seems to forget there’s really no suspense at all to this story and its inevitable ending. In between, there’s a lot of filler that has the intended spookiness, but the scares have been done much better in other “trapped in a snowstorm” horror flicks, most notably in 1980’s “The Shining” and 1982’s “The Thing.” Because of all that filler, “The Lodge” would have been much better-off as a short film with a length of less than 30 minutes.

Neon will release “The Lodge” in select U.S. cinemas on February 7, 2020.

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