'Goodnight Mommy' Review: A Deeply Uncomfortable, Deeply Rewarding Experience

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.

Goodnight Mommy (3)

And now, because — as I said — Goodnight Mommy is impossible to fully appreciate without understanding the whole film, let's dive into spoilers. Major, paradigm-shifting spoilers, the kind you definitely don't want to read if you're even thinking of maybe someday watching the film. You've been warned. Proceed at your own risk.

The boys' increasingly dysfunctional relationship with their mother culminates in a scene where the boys tie their to her bed and proceed to torment the truth out of her — the "truth" being where their real mother is. When the woman tied to the bed won't, or can't, answer, the boys resort to such measures as burning her skin with a magnifying glass and Super Gluing her mouth shut.

This lengthy torture scene is what nearly inspired me to walk out. While not as lurid or extreme as a Saw-type torture scene, it struck me at the time as needlessly long and graphic. The camera remained, unblinking, on this person's suffering, and the sound effects made it feel all too real. I wondered if the entire film had been building to this brutality, and felt cheated. In the moment, I couldn't imagine anything was possibly worth my sitting through such visceral torment.

In retrospect, it becomes apparent the the film was paving the way for its final, shocking twist. (If you are planning to see the movie and are still reading, seriously, stop now.) As we watch the boys torture their mother, our loyalties begin to shift away from the boys and toward the mother. Even if she is an impostor — a possibility that becomes more and more doubtful as the scene continues — it becomes impossible to justify the level of torment they're visiting upon this woman.

And then, after an ill-fated escape attempt on her part, the truth is revealed: The boys are actually just one boy, Elias. Lukas was killed in an accident before the events of the film, and he's been a figment of Elias' imagination the whole time we've been watching the film.

Fiala and Franz's construction of this twist is nothing short of masterful. Most movie twists rely on a bit of fudging or trickery on the filmmaker's part, and few offer more than a fun jolt. Goodnight Mommy's twist changes our understanding of everything we've seen. And it does so entirely honestly. As we think back to fill in the gaps, it becomes apparent that Fiala and Franz have been telegraphing this twist all along.

Hints are woven in from the start. The film opens with a scene of the boys playing outside. Elias keeps calling out for Lukas, but never the other way around. Certain shots make it difficult to tell exactly how many boys are running around, while others obscure one twin behind the other. The mother's odd behavior, too, makes perfect sense in light of this revelation. She's reeling from the death of her son, and at a loss to deal with the fact that her other son is in deep denial.

To throw us off the track, the filmmakers expertly employ a series of red herrings including a dead cat, a disappearing mole, a strange old photograph. But even there, it's hard to cry foul. The fact that Elias is an unreliable narrator is quickly and firmly established, by way of violent, fantastical sequences that turn out to be nothing more than dreams or fantasies. All in all, it's one of the best constructed movie twists in recent memory.

And it's a twist that actually adds a layer of meaning to the film, rather than one that shocks for the sake of it. (Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with the latter. A silly twist can be great fun when done right.) The new information gives Goodnight Mommy an undercurrent of profound tragedy, turning it into something like The Babadoook — a story that initially appears to be about monstrous motherhood, but really turns out to be about grief.

Unfortunately, the emotional gut-punch is weakened somewhat by the fact that we simply don't know to be sad for this family until the last five or ten minutes of the film. It's possible the big spoiler makes the second viewing more heart-wrenching, but I can't say for certain, because I've been too scared to find out.