A midnight masterstroke of paranoia and syngenesophobia, Goodnight Mommy toys with the brittle psyches of a nuclear family like a child toasting ants with his magnifying glass. Tensions reach a fever-pitch as roguish twins, suspecting their mother fresh home from cosmetic surgery is not who she claims to be, decide to launch all-out warfare. The ensuing chronicling of domestic distrust is taken to fiery extremes; the fallout will no doubt prove hard to bear for some viewers – both for its graphic depictions of violence and for the film’s deliberate pacing – but those willing to wait it out are in store for a nasty slice of psychological horror pie.
Directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, Goodnight Mommy begins in earnest, simpering into the wake of an untold tragedy. We’re not privy to the events leading up to its mise-en-scène opening, but the ominous, dread-laden lullaby that is Olga Neuwirth’s sorrowful score juxtaposed with the quiet chirp of the far-flung Austrian landscape is enough of an indication that things aren’t as they should be. Just as old maps warn “Here there be dragons” on their fringes, we get a sense that in this sun-soaked Austrian backcountry, there be beings of a similarly protective and fire-breathing nature. Quite literally, here be dragons.
Flax-haired twins Elias and Lucas (Elias and Lucas Schwarz) shamble around their plot of super-rural acreage, bouncing on buoyant clumps of soil, poking their heads into caves, collecting hissing roaches, conducting slap contests. They are the masters of their domain; the chieftains of this secluded, hard to reach lot. There’s a palpable air of mischief to the two well before the accusations of maternal takeover begins. A not-too-faint twinkle of impishness sparkles in their blue eyes. The two are just as much partners in crime as they are brothers.
Having just returned from an undisclosed facial surgery, the mother to the two boys (Susanne Wuest) is obscured behind bandages. Her dressings serve a medical purpose as well as provide a practical retreat from her increasingly irate boys. Shortly after arriving home, mama’s dished up a new set of rules to keep her offspring at bay. In her defense, the last thing you want after surgery is two agile boys bounding around the house. Then again, she can’t seem to remain their favorite song. In fact, many of their histories have gone seemingly forgotten. The boys take this odd behavior of their mummy-like mommy as more than a matriarchal offense, becoming convinced that this gauze-covered woman is not indeed their mother at all. She is but an impostor with devilish intents.
That Franz and Fiala do not attempt to obscure the narrative twists and turns down the road is essential to their success. As pieces fall inevitably into place, it’s not so much their being there that makes the film pop so much as their sparkling ability to weave moodiness from melodrama. In more ways than one, Goodnight Mommy is a gaudy Austrian soap opera; blood-soaked and unnervingly domestic.
Their film is tactile and introspective, building its enveloping tendrils of dread from a willingness to remain low-broiling and gently encroaching. If it had a spirit animal, it would When the proverbial pot doth finally boil over, the effect is scalding. Goodnight Mommy‘s third act coup d’etat will likely need to be watched through the smallest crooks of one’s digits.
Wuest’s performance as the titular nighttime mommy is nothing shy of enviable; her ability to remain distant and yet convey the occasional warm touch (all through a burka of bandages) lends the film narrative tension in spades. The two boys too prove more than capable, riding the fine line between innocence and something far more sinister.
Mounting attempts to enervate the “mother” leads to some truly unnerving cinema – particularly once gorilla glue enters the picture – though getting there requires a second act stretch that almost threatens to become inert. Almost. Minor monotony qualms aside, Goodnight Mommy mostly lives up to its terrifying reputation.
CONCLUSION: A foreign, art house horror movie, ‘Goodnight Mommy’ is cinema for cinephiles and horror completists. Slow-moving and occasionally brutal, it will however summon sincere scares and leave audiences with permanent nightmares.