“Goodnight Mommy” is a slow burn thriller. It will test your patience big time but it pays off in the end because it essentially tricks you. Co directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz do an effective job of framing the action from a very subjective viewpoint (two young twin boys) and then completely flip the script on us during the last thirty minutes or so. It’s similar to a novel using the unreliable narrator device.
Set in the Austrian countryside, “Goodnight Mommy” revolves around Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they move to a new house with their mother (played by Susanne West) in the wake of a serious accident. It’s a sleek luxury house in the midst of a gorgeous property, complete with a cornfield, a lush wooded area and a pond. Soon enough, Lukas and Elias begin to have doubts about their mother. She’s recently had facial reconstructive surgery, leaving her entire head covered in bandages. She looks different and seems to act different--cold and distant, demanding that all the window blinds be closed and the house is absolutely silent. Soon enough they begin to suspect that the person hidden under those bandages isn’t their mother.
The genius of “Goodnight Mommy” is in how little information we’re given. Fiala and Franz (who also wrote the script) resist the urge to talk down to the audience and lay everything out neatly. There’s been an accident but we don’t find out what exactly happened. Mother (we don’t find out her real name) is in bandages but we don’t know how her face was disfigured in the first place. Lukas and Elias’s father is absent but again, we don’t know why. The movie is highly observant—major story and character developments are communicated through subtle action and scant dialogue. It’s a movie that requires your complete attention.
This method of sharing limited information allows the film to be told from Lukas and Elias’s scared and uncertain perspective. Fiala and Franz devote a lot of time to establishing and strengthening their sibling bond. Chasing each other through the corn maze, playfully hitting each other while in the bathtub, or holing up in their room trying to hide from Mother. Meanwhile, Mother is always depicted as this mysterious, looming presence, creepily watching the boys from her bedroom window, or staying confined to her bed. We come to view her as a stranger just as they do. There aren’t any flashbacks. We don’t know what Mother or the twins were like before the accident. All we have to go on is the present situation and what Fiala and Franz choose to show us. “Goodnight Mommy” is a smart, well made film that forces the audience to fill in the gaps and try to construct the whole picture.
Additionally, the film’s central dilemma (brothers who don’t recognize their own mother) is always intriguing because it works in a surface level genre thriller way (if this isn’t their mother, then who is she and what does she want?) and penetrates to a deeper more psychological level pertaining to parenthood and maternity. How hard would it be if one day you didn’t recognize your own mother and were scared of her? And on the flip side: as a parent, what if your own kids, your own flesh and blood, viewed you as a stranger, as their enemy?
When the trailer for “Goodnight Mommy” hit the web four or five weeks ago, a number of websites dubbed it “the scariest movie trailer of all time.” Now whether or not that’s indeed true is irrelevant but I’m guessing the film itself will not be remembered as the “scariest movie of all time,” or even close. Except for a few eerie dream sequences, the picture is mostly calm and mundane instead of terrifying; Olga Neuwirth’s score is scarcely used and it moves at a leisurely pace. But this isn’t the picture’s fault (movie marketing in general is constantly deceiving) and if “Mommy” isn’t a horror film it’s an expertly crafted psychological thriller.
“Goodnight Mommy” will be too slow for some but for those who are patient, it delivers big time—the explosive last half hour is disturbing and uncomfortable (the closest the picture does come to horror) and delivers one last unexpected twist.