Monday, December 28, 2015

Catching Up: "Goodnight Mommy"

 4 / 5 

Goodnight Mommy is a nasty, brutal, sadistic, sick little puzzle of a movie that seems, for most of its running time, to be an odd psychological horror movie, then in the last 15 minutes turns so repulsively evil that some critics have labeled it "torture porn."

As someone who's never seen a Saw, Hostel or Human Centipede movie, I don't know if the description is at all accurate, though what happens at the climax of Goodnight Mommy is shocking and sickening -- and presented as such a natural extension of character behavior that even in the fleeting moments that caused me to look away from the screen and shout a rarely used expletive, it all felt like the movie was going exactly where it needed to go.  Do not see this movie if you are not prepared to descend into a pit of bleak despair.

Goodnight Mommy has the enormous redemption, though, of being a very good movie.  It's made by two directors, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who have never made a feature film before, but displays such calm, assured mastery that you'd never know it.  There are echoes of The Shining both in style and in the theme of a parent who seems mysteriously changed.

Lukas and Elias are twin boys -- played by twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz -- who live in the idyllic Austrian countryside.  As the film begins, they are alone, though even their solitude is laced with foreboding: Where are their parents? Why does one of the boys keep disappearing from the other?

A car pulls up to the lakeside villa.  Mother is home.  They greet her in her room, but her face is covered in bandages.  She is recovering from what we can assume to be plastic surgery.  There are a lot of things we can assume in Goodnight Mommy, though the big question is how many of those assumptions are correct.

The boys idolize her with the reverence of, well, their mother, but they can't see her under the bandages, and there seems to be something different about her.  With the bandages on, there's no way to tell if the woman underneath them is really their mother, as she claims, or a sinister imposter.

The boys' paranoia grows.  It's not helped by the weird, pristine shrine to vanity in which they live.  The house is maintained as if it's a showplace, not a home.   All over the walls are enormous pictures of a woman who we assume to be Mother, but her face is blurred.

Mother (Susanne Wuest) is irritable and needs rest.  From the standpoint of an adult, everything she says and does makes complete sense.  From the standpoint of a child, everything she says and does is terrifying and confusing.  Where is their Mama?  What has this broken, sensitive, barely awake woman done to their beloved?

But on the other hand -- why won't they just let her rest?  Why are the boys becoming increasingly unhinged at the ludicrous notion that this is not their mother?

The paranoia grows on both sides.  Then, just about the time that Goodnight Mommy makes it plan that Mommy is the villain, that there's something decidedly wrong with her, it switches gears, and the kids themselves -- these sweet, innocent, rough-and-tumble 9-year-old boys -- become suspect.

Here, then, is an interesting prospect: What happens when no one in a movie is reliable or trustworthy, when every single person on screen is morally questionable?  Goodnight Mommy delights in the result.  It's a movie that would have thrilled Alfred Hitchcock with the way it plays on audience sympathies.  Throughout Goodnight Mommy, it's impossible to know who to trust -- with the exception of some simpleton rubes from the Red Cross who pick a particularly inconvenient moment to come around looking for donations.

Goodnight Mommy had me so intrigued to know where things would go, and so engrossed in its warped story, that I suspect it's a movie that will reward second and third views.  A quick Google search turned up discussions about scenes and images I hadn't considered, particularly a shot toward the very, very end that could be either a mistake on behalf of the filmmakers (which seems unlikely) or a scene that is very different than it appears to be.  But Goodnight Mommy is filled with these visual and narrative puzzlers -- a movie in which there are no simple questions.

While there's a "twist" at the end of Goodnight Mommy, it's exactly the one you suspected was coming all along, and Franz and Fiala seem aware that the audience will be in on the gag -- offering surprising plot points isn't their primary mission, it seems.  Offering a surprising movie is what they're aiming to do, and Goodnight Mommy is definitely that.  True, it's so off-putting and twisted that I would not want to sit through it again, and yet -- I'm almost tempted to re-watch right now, just to see if I can get to the bottom of some of the many mysteries it presents.

Viewed Dec. 27, 2015 -- VOD


  1. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to handle this movie, but your review has got me so curious that I was close to seeking it out. Great post.

  2. KC, on one hand I think you could watch it except for the last 15 minutes. On the other hand, that's like saying you could eat a Snickers except for the peanuts. It's a worthwhile movie, but it is awfully hard to watch. If you do, let me know what you think -- and good luck!