Release: Friday, September 11, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Severin Fiala; Veronika Franz
Directed by: Severin Fiala; Veronika Franz
This piece is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. After a lot of anticipation having read some of the great reviews out there, I finally had a chance to check out Austria’s attempted, but unfortunately not accepted, entry for Foreign Language Feature in the 88th Academy Awards, and I’d like to thank James for helping me tick it off the list!
The cumulative effect of the brutal Austrian-produced Goodnight Mommy tends to linger like a hangover, but an acceptable hangover, if there were such a thing. Few modern horrors can say they resonate in this way, in the latent way this thriller-horror hybrid seems to matter after it has seduced viewers and gutted them with a properly sadistic and cruel conclusion that has largely earned the film its reputation. (So if torture isn’t your thing, you might consider skipping this title the next time you see it.)
Here’s the thing, though: Goodnight Mommy doesn’t really deal in gore. It’s much more interested in the actual suffering. A quietly-building, dialogue-lite but suspense-heavy psychological thriller set around a posh modern home protected on either side by thick forest and endless cornfields, it offers viewers a shocking, heartrending experience in which the most sacred of all relationships, that between a mother and her children — in this case twin sons — is twisted into a nightmarish game of identity, perception and paranoia.
Twin boys Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) seem to be enjoying the great outdoors and the peaceful serenity of where they live; they’re roaming around freely as a car pulls up to the house and a horn pierces the quiet summer air like a needle. No, it’s not subtle at all but the arrival of the mother (Susanne Wuest) does effectively usher in the reason why we’re watching in the first place. It hasn’t really been a comfortable experience up to this point either — something about children exploring pits filled with human bones doesn’t sit right — but here’s basically the part where you say goodbye to innocence.
The boys have trouble believing who has come home is actually their mother as there are physical and psychological changes obscuring her real identity. The makeup is impressive; how a medical garment can act as such an obstruction of what’s real leads to our sharing in the boys’ discomfort. Her head is heavily bandaged, leaving only her eyes and mouth visible. But her behavior has also changed.
When she doesn’t receive a warm welcome at home she becomes confrontational and proceeds to lay out new house rules that forbid Lukas and Elias from playing in the house or making any noise at all and that she is not to be disturbed as she needs rest after her surgery. As time passes the boys become increasingly suspicious of her and find themselves with no choice but to take drastic measures to figure out what is going on.
That latent effect I referred to earlier — let’s dig into that a little. This is what actually came to define my experience because I was taken aback by my lack of reaction to what I saw initially. I’ve seen far more visually graphic horrors and movies with more perverse plots before and there are far more gratuitously violent options available as well. This is rarely a bloody picture but Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have a knack for stuffing the story with things that we really don’t want to be seeing. The psychological effects are real.
Just when you think you can’t take any more, they unleash the infamous third act, a manifestation of cruelty that indeed takes some time to process. The initial exposure is certainly shocking, but it won’t be until later that you start asking yourself what it was that you just saw. It’s in these quiet moments with your own thoughts where the directors truly earn their paycheck. You won’t stop thinking about certain things.
Watching it all unfold is a brilliant trap. The quiet, almost wordless account starts off so innocuously you’re lulled into a false sense of security and before you know it, an hour’s passed. But the water is never less than boiling in this pot, as the tension between the boys and the new person they think is in their house is slowly inflamed with every passing scene. As the narrative continues to mature into something ugly you’re compelled to keep watching.
This is less a function of high-caliber acting as it is of the naturally crafted atmosphere and brooding mood. The acting is certainly nothing to scoff at but it’s not the selling point. Rather, it’s the smaller things: the cleanliness of the house and the inconspicuousness of the environs offer a stark contrast to the subdued, incontrovertibly strained relationships ongoing in this place. There’s a lot of history in the house, something that’s hinted at by long panning shots of sharp angles and hip furniture. A stillness that lingers and subtly disturbs.
Goodnight Mommy has drawn a lot of criticism for its embracing of sadistic violence but the scenes aren’t there simply to make audiences suffer. This certainly isn’t the kind of hyper-stylized bloodletting Quentin Tarantino is famous for and because it’s not, the violence has to be taken more seriously. The movie in general should be taken more seriously because of its handling of a subject as complex and frightening as psychosis. This isn’t a film for everyone but it should satiate fans of high-concept horror-thrillers.
Recommendation: Not a film for everyone by any means, Goodnight Mommy is consistently bleak and peaks in gut-wrenching fashion. The reward for enduring might not be enough for some viewers but behind the cruelty and suffering lies an intelligent and thought-provoking movie about the nature of the mother-child relationship, one that has just as good a chance of breaking your heart as it has of turning your stomach.
Running Time: 99 mins.
Quoted: “Mom would have known that.”
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