Posted on Monday, September 28th, 2015 by Angie Han
Note: While the first page of this review is spoiler-free, the second goes deep into spoiler territory. We ask that you mark spoilers in the comments, but proceed into the comments at your own risk.
To the best of my memory, I’ve only ever walked out on three movies in my life. Twice, it was at the behest of other people; once, I was simply bored. All three times were years before I began watching movies for work.
I did not walk out on Goodnight Mommy. But I came as close as I ever have in my professional career, which is a testament to how disturbing the film gets. And yet, in the end, I had to admit it more than paid me back for my deep discomfort, which is a testament to how ultimately brilliant it is.
Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy plays like a dark fairy tale — think Brothers Grimm, not Disney. Identical twin boys Lukas and Elias (played by real-life identical twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz) live with their single mother in the Austrian countryside, idling away their summer floating on lakes, exploring dark caves, and chasing each other through cornfields when they’re not lounging around their well appointed home.
Their idyll is shattered when their mother (Susanne Wuest, who is almost too good — more on that later) returns from an unexplained plastic surgery procedure. The boys are understandably weirded out by her swollen, bandaged visage, but what really terrifies them is the change in her demeanor. Their once-sweet mother has come back sour. She’s short on affection and quick to punish, and seems desperately jealous of her sons’ closeness.
Goodnight Mommy relies more on uneasiness than gore or thrills. There’s a pervasive sense that something isn’t right, but little confirmation that anything is truly wrong. The uncertainty that lies in between grows until it becomes sickening. The mother’s behavior is unquestionably erratic and cruel, and the house is littered with evidence of some horrific wrong she’s tried to hide. But does that make her an impostor, as the boys increasingly suspect? Or is she just a bad mother?
On the flip side, while it’s easy to sympathize with the boys’ fear of their dramatically transformed mother, their own reactions don’t quite sit right either. At first, we root for them to get to the bottom of the mystery, and to break free of the monster if necessary. But as they go to ever more extreme lengths to defend themselves, we start to wonder if there isn’t something a little off about them too.
The talents in front of and behind the camera act in concert to keep us unsettled. Goodnight Mommy is a fairly quiet film, but that just magnifies every loud crunch, scratch, and thump. It’s also fairly slow, employing languid takes that don’t allow us to look away even when we’d desperately like to. And when there’s nothing particularly upsetting happening onscreen, there’s always the set to look at. The designers have filled it with innocuous yet unnerving details, like blurry, shadowy portraits and insect-print wallpaper.
These minimalist choices offer a generous showcase for the actors, who make the most of them. Wuest gives a tricky performance that keeps us guessing. Her cold, angry gaze makes her sons, and us, cower, but when she acts warm or vulnerable it’s somehow even creepier. Her young co-stars are equally effective, playing the boys as both frightened and frightening. The whole film feels, somehow, both crisp and dreamlike — like a nightmare just before you’re jolted awake.
They also make Goodnight Mommy, at times, excruciating to watch. As far as horror movies go, Goodnight Mommy isn’t especially violent. But Fiala and Franz, and their actors, purposefully push the audience to their emotional limits. The scene that nearly broke me started out unpleasant, and then kept going and going until I wasn’t sure I could bear any more.
The utterly committed performances completely sold the ugliness unfolding onscreen, and the editing and sound design made sure I felt every second of it. Even though I knew intellectually that I was just watching a bunch of actors play pretend on a set, the terror affected me viscerally. (Your mileage may vary here — some other critics I spoke to weren’t nearly as freaked out as I was — but I can only speak from my personal experience.)
Goodnight Mommy is, in other words, a huge ask. All films demand something of the audience, in the form of time, money, and/or emotional investment; Goodnight Mommy‘s first-time feature filmmakers put viewers through hell with the implicit promise that they’ll make it all worth it in the end. The biggest surprise, for me, was that they actually make good on that contract. But a tiny part of me still resents that they asked so much of me at all.
Given all that, it’s hard to blame anyone who decides to walk out of Goodnight Mommy, or just skip it altogether. Especially since this is a film that doesn’t just spook and rattle in the moment, but one that’ll leave audiences thinking for days or weeks afterward. If you do make the choice to see it, do yourself a favor and stick it all the way through. While Goodnight Mommy feels artful and confident throughout, its true brilliance can’t be appreciated without looking at the film as a whole.
And on that note, let’s proceed to the spoilers.