Goodnight Mommy

Austria, 2015
Writers: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Out of 5: 3.5

[Editor’s note: It’s difficult to explain, as this is a spoiler-free review, but there are some extremely disturbing moments in Goodnight Mommy. Viewer discretion is advised.]

The power of parents over their children is so strong that “something’s wrong with Mom/Dad” is a constant source of B-movie horror.There’s no shortage of films like The Stepfather or Mommie Dearest where the parent is a horrible psychopath, and the children are in mortal danger from minute one. Goodnight Mommy, Austria’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the upcoming Academy Awards, has the same sort of plot description as those B pictures, and it is occasionally as blunt and violent as they are. However, it also has a tougher, more challenging take on the material.

The film takes place in and around the isolated house where twin brothers Elias and Lukas (played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz) live with their unnamed Mama (Susanne Wuest). Elias and Lukas’ life is as unsettling as their house: they play only with each other, in weird forests and caves, and are obsessed with finding bugs in these strange places and bringing them home. Soon, the unsettled feeling finds a focus: something is wrong with Mama, who recently had surgery and does not seem like herself. Has Mama become some kind of monster under those surgical bandages? And if she has, what must be done?

Writers/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala put all their attention to establishing a dreamlike tone, with the boys living in a house that feels too large and too small at the same time, playing in a forest that looks like it came right out of a faerie tale. Although Elias and Lukas have a few outright nightmares during the movie, many more scenes feel like a nightmare that any viewer could have had (especially because the boys seem to collect the biggest, ugliest insects in all of Austria). The real world rarely intrudes into the twins’ lives, and when it does it is perfunctory and taken for granted, in the way that the throw-away parts of dreams often are.

goodnight-mommy2The weakness of this approach is that savvy viewers will understand something is up almost immediately. Almost nothing is shown about Mama from before her surgery, and a number of her lines of dialogue are pregnant with multiple meanings (while playing the European style of Twenty Questions made famous in Inglourious Basterds, Mama complains, “I don’t know who I am!”). In more than a few scenes, experienced movie-goers will feel the hand of the director guiding them towards a conclusion. There will be no spoilers in this review, but if you have any friends who like to brag about how they saw [spoiler] coming a mile away, get ready to receive an earful from them on this film.

The main strength of Goodnight Mommy is that its gorgeous style allows for a wide variety of metaphors and allegories to be read into it. One might compare the boys’ story to the tale told by so many politicians fourteen years ago: there are monsters in our midst, we can’t spot them on the outside but we know something is wrong, and the problem is so ugly that it can be solved only with equally ugly methods. (The boys even conduct surveillance on Mama without her knowledge, and show some skill at hiding their secrets from the Red Cross.) Goodnight Mommy isn’t the first movie to suggest that in trying to protect ourselves from an unspeakable horror, even greater horrors might result, and Goodnight Mommy may be more heavy-handed than most movies which deliver that message. But it’s stylish and chilling enough to stay with you long after you’ve seen it.

Mark Young is the editor of Cinephile City.

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