By Tom Platt. “Tomorrow morning, if God wants so, you will wake once again…” — Brahms’ Lullaby
Mommy and her two boys sit down to play a game of Who Am I. The boy writes “Mama” and sticks the card to his mother’s head and she asks, “Am I an animal? Am I a thing? Am I a person?” The boys remain silent, exchanging uneasy glances to each other, uncertain how to answer.
A fantastically brutal addition to the thriller genre finally emerges from this year’s slew of half baked remakes and found footage schlock. A good old-fashioned meditation on unnerving dread, Goodnight Mommy won’t make you jump out of your skin, but the nightmares that’ll come from it just might leave you with some serious trust issues.
Set deep in the Austrian countryside, we begin with a lengthy introduction to Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz), 9 year old twins who spend their long summer days playing hide and seek in relative solitude while they wait for their mother to return home. Mommy (Susanne Wuest) finally appears after a mysterious accident that has left her head and face completely covered in bandages. While she offers no explanation for her disappearance it doesn’t take long for Lukas to provide one for her, convincing his brother that this woman is most definitely an imposter with malicious intent.
The mother tosses her power around in an attempt to maintain her status, grounding the boys and even telling Elias they’re going to ignore Lukas until he starts acting nicer. Relinquishing the boys of their Eden after a summer of unbridled freedom only harbors contempt from the boys, and their insubordination soon escalates to a chilling level.
Written and Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy is crafted with a tremendous amount of intent. When it works to provide these characters with odd peculiarities, like giving the boys an obsession with giant hissing roaches, dressing the mother in heels while she does her housework, or simply hanging artwork of distorted women throughout the house, Goodnight Mommy silently instills the audience with flip-flopping prejudices toward all three characters.
Tensions simmer for a long while before finally boiling over, as the boys continue to test their mother’s credibility. Starting as minor pranks in an attempt to simply frighten the mystery woman away, the boys soon search for actual evidence, before finally devolving into literal torture. And while the gruesome images on screen border on the unbearable, the choice to use such extreme tactics comes off as a relatively logical progression. This well written escalation of tactics allows Goodnight Mommy to avoid the pitfalls found in so many other “torture porn” movies, and while the images on screen will definitely disturb, they are far from gratuitous.
No matter how you spin it though, Goodnight Mommy is still a film defined by its genre. While the emotionally complex characters help carry the film beyond the usual tropes of a mother/child conflict, the inevitable twist ending offers little in terms of re-watch value. Throughout the film the audience is left to their own devices as to who they want to trust and why, however when the credits finally roll there is little room left for interpretation.
Instilling discomfort at a root level, Goodnight Mommy has done what so many widely released films have attempted to do. By offering up three well developed characters, writer/director duo Franz and Fiala leave the audience with an ambiguous villain that causes the film to be not just tense and unnerving, but woefully sad as well. These characters hold a reality that is lacking from similar screenplays, allowing Goodnight Mommy to creep under your skin where it belongs.