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.

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