The bond of family is strong. However, some family bonds are stronger than others. They all need constant nurturing, though, and the relationship dynamics between parent and child can be delicate at times. Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian film by Severin Fiala and Veronkia Franz, is an slow-building, tense examination of the dynamics of these relationships and how abrupt, unexpected changes can have drastic and tragic impact on them.
The film opens with two twin boys, Elias and Lukas (Elias & Lukas Schwarz), playing in an idyllic countryside setting on a beautiful summer day; playing tag in corn fields, floating lazily in a pond, running around, exploring the forest and little caves. Their Mother (Susanne Wuest) soon returns home to their isolated home with her head wrapped in bandages; it’s hinted at that she is a television personality and that the bandages are from plastic surgery, though it’s never made clear.
The twins are taken back by her bandaged appearance and, combined with her strange behavior, soon begin to suspect that this woman is not their real Mother. They begin spying on her, she chooses to ignore one of them, and things soon begin to escalate and spiral out of control.
The film is the type of foreign horror film that benefits from a slow, deliberate pace and explores the psychological as well as the visual horror. There are a few nightmare and dream sequences littered throughout the film, too, adding to the mounting sense of dread, tension and psychological disturbance at play.
I loved the way that the film toys with its audience in constantly keeping you on your guard as to who you should be trusting and believing, the Mother or the twins. Naturally, you start out thinking the twins are absurd for thinking she is not their mother. There’s no reason to think that someone would want to take her place and go through all that trouble for no clear reason. As things progress, though, you begin to wonder if perhaps there is someone to their suspicions, given her sometimes peculiar behavior. They even find a picture in a photo album of someone who looks amazingly similar to their mother.
What makes the tension of all of this work is that the story is told from the perspective of the twins. We see the world through their eyes. It’s telling that the mother’s actual name is never given; to kids their parents are just Mom or Dad. And in the mind of young kids, often times things that on their face would sound absurd and unlikely, like someone assuming the identity of a single mother, can actually sound plausible, because their logical minds aren’t fully developed. And in the mind of twins, who look exactly alike as Elias and Lukas, seeing a picture of someone with a similar appearance of their mother can lend weighty evidence to their dubious and faulty suspicions.
At a certain point, I figured out the conceit of the film. Obviously, there is a growing sense throughout the film that something is not entirely right, that is the story tension that the film lives in, and that things will come to a head. Once I figured out the conceit, the aspects of the film that were bothering me and/or making me question my loyalties to the characters finally made sense. Even though I had “solved” the film, I was still able to appreciate what it was doing and enjoy the disturbing build to its climax. In fact, knowing what the film was withholding added to the tragic element of the film. For some people, though, I could see the conceit being a problem, and the climax of the film being not to their liking, as it slowly deteriorates a bit into torture porn territory.
The two boys, Elias and Lukas Schwarz, are really impressive. They give two very distinct performances. They share the same face, same adolescent build, and the same haircut, but they distinguish themselves well from one another in how they portray their characters, also named Elias and Lukas. Lukas is more assertive, aggressive, and quicker to question their Mother. Elias is more reserved, has doubts about his mother, but also harbors some doubts about what they are doing to her. He is quicker to be sympathetic. Together, they do a great job, and are quietly sinister, and possibly more dangerous than even they realize.
Goodnight Mommy is a solid horror film. It uses its location of an isolated residence to great effect. It features two quiet but unsettling performances from two young twin boys. While some people may be turned off by its conceit, it worked for me and added to the disturbing nature of the film.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars