Directors: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Cast: Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
MPAA Rating: (for disturbing violent content and some nudity)
Running Time: 1:39
Release Date: 9/11/15 (limited); 9/25/15 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | September 24, 2015
Goodnight Mommy is a horror film built upon a simple truth: Children have difficulty comprehending and coping with loss. Here, twin boys have gone through their parents' messy divorce, and there is reference to some sort of "accident." No one talks about it much, and that kind of response to a painful incident, we suppose, is the worst kind. None of these characters has dealt with whatever happened, so the wounds remain open and fresh. We get the sense that the boys have dealt with it in their own way, because their mother is understandably preoccupied with her own concerns. This situation shouldn't descend into the violence that ultimately occurs, but it does, in a chilling and incredibly unnerving extended sequence that mercilessly pits child against parent.
The boys are Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), and the opening montage shows them enjoying an ideal childhood against the idyllic backdrop of the Austrian countryside. They play hide-and-seek in a cornfield. They bounce on earth with a reservoir of water beneath it. They explore a dark tunnel, as their laughter echoes from out of the shadows. They enjoy a nearby lake, where Elias floats on top of the surface while Lukas practices holding his breath underwater. The sequence grows more ominous and mysterious in small ways as it progresses.
The boys are alone and in the middle of nowhere, with their family's modern home standing in stark contrast to the fields and forests surrounding it. The sense of isolation is overpowering. We know from the first shot of the house that no one would know if something were to go wrong here. It's silent, save for the sounds of nature and, soon, the hum of a car approaching down the dirt path leading to the house.
The boys' mother (Susanne Wuest) has returned home. Something about her is not quite right, and that something is that her face is covered in bandages. She has had plastic surgery performed. We learn a little about her in a game of Twenty Questions upon the night of her return. She's a television news anchor, so perhaps the surgery is to try to maintain an appearance of youth for her job.
Maybe she simply wants a new face to go along with her new life. The boys' mother and father have divorced, and she has torn the pictures of her ex-husband out of the photo albums. The boys later find a video, presumably for a dating website, of her introducing herself and listing her interests. Mother is moving on with her life.
The boys clearly do not understand any of this. The missing photographs, the video, a photo of their mother with another woman who is dressed identically to her, a new list of rules to help her recovery, the way she seems to hold a grudge against one of her sons, and an assortment of other, in their minds, oddities can only point to one thing: The woman in the house is not their mother.
The film, written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, is simple and direct in its storytelling. It's told almost exclusively from the boys' perspective, as they scamper around the house searching for clues devising increasingly daring schemes to see what this woman, who claims to be their mother, is planning herself. Checking in on her while she sleeps becomes placing a baby monitor under her bed. They break her rules of not bringing any animals into the house by keeping a tank filled with cockroaches and rescuing a stray cat from a crypt filled with skeletal remains. The cat's disappearance is yet another piece of evidence in their minds that this woman has some devious plan against them in motion.
We, of course, know that their belief in some grand conspiracy is misplaced. There's a simple explanation for it all, which is alluded to in one of the few breaks from the boys' point of view, when we learn the mother is only pretending to sleep. These boys are exhausting, and mother simply wants some rest, some peace, some quiet, and some chance to escape from this suffocating existence.
Fiala and Franz explain all of this in purely visual terms (The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht is oppressive in its almost monochromatic palette), with minimal dialogue and an unswerving escalation of tension. A few dream sequences, such as one featuring the mother ripping off her bandages and becoming a faceless entity, enhance our understanding of the boys' suspicions and hint at the forming of some dreadful design (e.g., a bit involving a cockroach and surgery).
The horror that comes at the climax is a heightened manifestation of the failures of this relationship: a mother who, understandably, has put her children as a lower priority in her life and at least one son who cannot figure out why that would be. The lengthy sequence of intentional and accidental torture that this impasse spawns is as meticulously fashioned as the observations leading up to it. The anticipation of what's to come moment by moment is as distressing as—if not more so than—the actual implementation of the boys' interrogation, which includes such childhood tools as a magnifying glass, glue, and scissors. The boys know what they're doing, but much of the violence comes from the fact that they don't quite foresee the repercussions.
The film stumbles a bit in a last-minute revelation that attempts to add a layer of questionable psychoanalysis to the situation (In retrospect, we should have seen it coming), although, to their credit, Fiala and Franz don't spend too much time with it. Goodnight Mommy works just fine as a twisted fable about the strangers we think we know.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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