'Goodnight Mommy' is a clinical horror that overcomes its twist ending
The Austrian "Goodnight Mommy" strands twin boys and their possibly impostor mom in a slow-burn horror that's too good for a cheap twist capper.
Directors: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Stars: Susanne Wuest, Elias and Lukas Schwartz
3 (out of 5) Globes
The Austrian chiller “Goodnight Mommy” has an unnecessary last-minute twist, but it’s clearly above that. For a lesser film the hairpin turn would push it over the top. For one so visually and even aurally confident, it brings it down to the groundlings. But no matter: For most of its length “Goodnight Mommy” milks the Euro master-shot style of minimalist filmmaking — entire scenes told in carefully chosen, unmoving long takes; little or no music that’s not a part of the action; exposition parceled out gradually and minimally — for tense scares. It’s a horror film, but one set on earth, if in a remote little corner of the world that feels like an alternate dimension.
In fact, for awhile it feels like a cousin of “Dogtooth.” Young boys Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwartz) are introduced running wild around a country estate, pouncing on caked-over mud patches, exploring a cave. It’s not long before some kind of order is restored. Their mother (Susanne Wuest) shows up, her face mysteriously bandaged-up. But she’s less like a parent than both dictator and third roommate. She coldly doles out new rules but prefers to spend her time alone, skulking about when no one’s there and avoiding them. We don’t know what she was like — or why her face is wrapped-up — but we can sense she seems like a new person. Elias and Lukas certainly think so. In fact, they convince themselves she’s not their mother but rather an intruder. And eventually they put their money where their mouth is.
“Goodnight Mommy” was produced by no less than Ulrich Seidl, Austria’s second-most notorious button-pusher, after Michael Haneke, although he’s only second because few outside of cinephilic circles have seen clinical shockers like “Import/Export.” To directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Seidl’s not just a benefactor; he’s an influence. Much of “Goodnight Mommy” plays like Seidl doing a midnight movie, with a story told visually, and with unnerving sound design, as well as patiently. It takes an hour of grievances for Elias and Lukas — who could slip right into the “Village of the Damned” crew without anyone noticing — to turn Eli Roth on their misperceived captor. Franz and Fiala present surreal imagery as plainly as they do the antiseptic insides of the family home: a taxidermied cat resting in an aquarium; massive cockroaches climbing over the sleeping mom; a dream that turns into an Aphex Twin video.
Throughout we’re encouraged to shift allegiances. We see the psychic damage the mother — credited only as The Mother — causes to her young sons, whether she’s actually an impostor or not. But she’s not an impostor, and we often shift away from young, vaguely sociopathic Elias and Lukas to watch her isolation. We can’t be sure what caused it, whether some horrible accident or just some shift in her temperament. We’re in the dark and yet we have a clear-eyed view of the situation, so when stuff hit the fan we can see the frightening absurdity of it all. It’s too bad about that twist ending, which could have benefited from coming even slightly earlier than it does, giving us more time to digest it rather than replaying the movie in our head to see if it all checks out. But by then the good kind of damage is already done.