Written and Directed by: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Starring: Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, and Elias Schwarz
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"You're not our mother."
Goodnight Mommy is a fine example of a quietly topsy-turvy film. It may hinge on a twist, but unlike many rug-pullers, it doesn’t rely on blindsiding its audience. Rather, it slowly disorients through the horrifying suggestion that something askew is unraveling before your eyes—you aren’t quite sure what it is, only that you are being led down some sinister path, being drawn to a wreckage upon which you can’t help but gaze. It’s a deliberate descent, one that has your guide pointing in one direction as it hides a knife behind your back. By the time you realize this, it’s too late.
Even at its most idyllic, it can’t escape a chilly menace in the air. We watch as a pair of twin brothers (Elias and Lukas Schwarz) play outside, blissfully unaware of responsibility and self-awareness. There’s an inexorable sense of loneliness and emptiness, however, as the shots linger without a hint of a parental presence. One especially striking image captures the odd mix of jubilance and desolation when the two bounce on a trampoline in the middle of a hailstorm. When the boys’ mother (Susanne Wuest) eventually emerges from the house heavily bandaged and deliberately ignores one of them (going so far as to even refuse to serve one dinner), it’s all done with the express purpose of coaxing one reaction: “just what in the hell is going on here?”
Writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala settle on answering this question in ominous fashion. Large bugs creep about the house, a tomb of bones rests near the house, and a pet cat turns up lifeless, its cause of death unknown. All indicate a sinister, perhaps supernatural turmoil has visited the house; vague whispers about a recent accident offer precious few clues, but it’s clear that this is a house haunted by something. The boys—particularly the very insistent Elias—only offer that their mother has returned from some sort of operation, yet has returned as a much different person. In fact, this cold, alien woman may not even be their mother at all.
While Goodnight Mommy is certainly absorbing from the outset, it’s this insinuation that hooks the audience and begins to lead them towards some semblance of an explanation. This is an unhappy home being uprooted from within rather than without, and the film arrives at a familiar but bone-chilling proposition: sometimes, the love between a parent and a child dissolves. This instance is particularly disturbing because the atmosphere has grown so toxic, with the children tiptoeing around every interaction with their mother, a frigid and distant woman whose contempt for these twins is obvious without encroaching into broadness. It’s legitimately skin-crawling.
That the film is firmly pitched from the twins’ perspective and keeps the mother at such a remove is a clever bit of withholding. To say that Franz and Fiala eventually begin to reveal their story isn’t quite accurate; it’s more precise to say that they unravel it ever so delicately. As the story unfolds, the two nudge it so subtly and delicately that you don’t even quite detect it. Goodnight Mommy is a masterclass in manipulation orchestrated by a duo that seems keenly interested in upending its audience’s sympathies right under their noses. Pointing out the exact moment the film turns isn’t even obvious, and there’s something sneaky—I daresay childishly devious—about the way it’s turned on its head.
At a certain point, the twins’ defensive distrust becomes shockingly violent, yet it’s carried out with a childlike sense of innocence and curiosity. You almost understand why they feel compelled to glue their mother’s mouth shut; even more, you sense some measure of dread for them when two visitors arrive and threaten to discover these horrors. Just as Hitchcock subtly manipulates viewers into feeling anxiety for Norman Bates as he disposes of Marion Crane’s body, so too do Franz and Fiala guide sympathies to a disturbing place. Goodnight Mommy is so engrossing that you don’t quite realize this in the moment; it’s only in retrospect that it’s inverted the typical dramatic irony involving a captive victim remaining just out of earshot of rescue. When was the last time you felt sympathy for the captor in this situation?
Obviously, Goodnight Mommy relies on a twisted, sparse script to explore the psychological horrors of familial strife, but it’s matched by Franz and Fiala’s similarly restrained, sharp direction. Most of the action hovers over this household—aforementioned intruders are minimal, and exterior shots become increasingly rare as this home becomes a crucible, its bad vibes exerting themselves to finish whatever the unsaid previous ordeal has started. Everyone wears this trauma on their faces, albeit in different ways: Wuest’s features are largely hidden beneath subtly bloodied bandages, but those splotches start to function like an inkblot test as the film gradually reorients. What looked to be soulless, dead eyes soon become heavy with guilt and grief once the truth comes into focus. Meanwhile, the Schwarz brothers’ faces seem to be angelic but slightly haunted, as if they’re attempting to suppress their anxiety. It’s a feeble attempt since they become more pronouncedly disturbed—but no less sad, as it turns out.
Franz and Fiala are wisely content to hang back and observe, allowing the intense drama to quietly simmer. Much of Goodnight Mommy unfolds beneath an unnerving hush, so the directors’ pointed intrusions provide genuine jolts with both queasy violence and discomforting psychological torment. Digging to the center of this film is a bit like removing scabs: it requires some delicate picking before you eventually just have to tear it off—there are several gasps along the way, then an anguished scream. Goodnight Mommy features plenty of both and culminates in a blood-curdling shriek bellowed from a place of inexplicable, primal terror. Something unholy is captured in this moment when the film has burrowed beneath your skin and perched there with no intentions of moving.
Goodnight Mommy is available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Weinstein Company/Anchor Bay/Starz.
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