Richard (Richard Armitage), his wife Laura (Alicia Silverstone), and their kids Aidan (Jaeden Martell) and Mia (Lia McHugh) are going through a rough patch. Richard has decided that he’s in love with Grace (Riley Keough), one of the subjects of a book he wrote about cults: Grace’s father was a Jim Jones-style leader of a sect that committed group suicide. Richard informs Laura that their separation should commence into divorce, and Laura promptly ends her life. Cut to six months later, when Richard decides it would be a swell idea to take Grace, Aidan, and Mia up to the mountains for a Christmas vacation, even though Richard has to work, leaving Grace alone with the kids. What is already a monumentally shitty situation escalates into worse and worse scenarios when their stuff mysteriously disappears (including Grace’s pills and everyone’s winter coats), and the power goes out, and the generator breaks, and their phones die, and also the nearest town is miles away and there’s major snow and no car, and they’re running out of food, and Grace’s dog is gone.
I watched this about a week after The Turning, which I wasn’t crazy about (it’s an easy comparison, what with both movies having a main character from the It reboot as a bratty teen with a little sister, resenting a new blond authority figure), and a few minutes after Cats, so my bar was set pretty low. I was still disappointed. It’s not poorly made whatsoever, but it is a premise that’s pretty hard to swallow. What kind of asshole would abandon his kids in snowy isolation with an unstable woman who’s barely more than a stranger to them?
The filmmakers do a great job of building tension with the sets alone. The movie is populated with these horrifying, teeny-tiny hallways and suffocating, low ceilings. Pair these with multiple shots of Grace staring dreamily out the window at the mounting levels of snow, and things are creepy AF. Not to mention the dolls. Dolls for days, in varying states of foreshadowing bad things to come. It’s eerie, even when nothing scary is happening. But overshadowing the creepiness is a sense of sorrow. The lighting is dim and drab and the color scheme is monochromatic. Stuff starts out sad and just snowballs into even more tragic events as it goes on, without letting up. Just when things look their worst, shit gets even worser. I couldn’t wait for it to be over because it was so damn joyless.
There are heavy religious themes and imagery throughout. Laura passes on her Catholic beliefs to the kids, and in one scene, Mia cries inconsolably because she believes her mother’s soul won’t be able to go to heaven. (Richard, being such an emotionally intelligent dude, tries to soothe her by saying “Nobody knows where we go.” I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad for a movie tween crying “You don’t understand!”) Crosses lurk everywhere, like the one looming ominously in a high-angle shot during Laura’s funeral. Religion is not portrayed very optimistically; it’s associated with cruelty and mania. At the cabin Grace becomes convinced they need to repent their sins and circles around in the snow on her knees; she also inflicts wounds on herself. (If you wanted to be even more bleak, you could invite the comparison between humans manipulating dolls and God manipulating humans.)
I’m not sorry I watched it, despite all my griping. It’s extremely powerful and moving, and the ending is worth the wait. And thank God, the little girl isn’t cutesy. Give it a look as long as you don’t suffer from depression, ’cause you might when it’s over.