Studio: Anchor Bay
Director: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Writer: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Producer: Ulrich Seidl
Stars: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest, Elfriede Schatz, Karl Purker, Hans Escher, Georg Deliovsky, Christian Steindl, Christian Schatz, Erwin Schmalzbauer
Twin brothers suspect that the woman who returned home after facial surgery may not be their real mother.
Twin brothers Elias and Lukas sense something is amiss with Mother. Since returning from facial surgery with her head hidden in gauze, Mother’s strict discipline and reclusive behavior have inspired suspicion of an imposter infiltrating the home. For what possible purpose, the boys cannot fathom. And if this woman is indeed someone else, then what happened to the real thing? Elias and Lukas have an idea about how they can confirm Mother’s true identity. The problem is their plan has potential to carve a chasm so deep, the family might not recover no matter the outcome.
Prior to screening it, I knew precisely two things about “Goodnight Mommy” aside from its basic premise. The first is that filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s narrative feature debut had the benefit of overwhelming enthusiasm from fans and critics certifying it as so outstanding, Austria selected it as the country’s candidate for Best Foreign Language Film consideration in the 2016 Academy Awards. The second is that the movie concludes with a third act revelation so divisive, some viewers exited theaters thoroughly impressed while others left only aggravated.
It can be detrimental to the final cinema experience to go in with any expectations at all, no matter how minor. Nevertheless, I went forward under a simple assumption of “Goodnight Mommy” being more than a mere B-movie thriller, with a Shyamalan-like twist and arty aesthetic lending a presumably Oscar-worthy edge.
Sifting through comments and reviews posted online, I was far from alone in creating a preconceived notion of what “Goodnight Mommy” might be. Some spoke of feeling betrayed by a trailer promising a differently styled movie. Some expressed being haunted by dreamy imagery and fearless themes. Others mentioned the film having two parts: a first half mired in mood, and a second focused on torture. In those cases, opinions were split regarding who preferred the front to the back and vice versa.
Juxtaposing various initial presumptions with after-the-fact reactions, one notion became clear. Whatever idea you have in your head, odds favor that “Goodnight Mommy” is probably not the movie you’ve prepared for.
Identifying the film as having a split personality is not incorrect. The first 45 minutes are paced with the casualness of a gentleman geriatric’s afternoon amble. Forewarning tells us the story is suspenseful horror, meaning we know something sinister ultimately upsets this lazy Sunday stroll. But the film isn’t upfront about what that turning point will be, content instead to quietly inch ahead with long pauses in black and extended sequences of negligible value.
10 minutes or so after the one-hour mark, the maddening mystery hits a wonderfully intolerable pitch. The guessing game regarding who Mother might be and where the breadcrumb clues lead spins the imagination like a top. The dizzying effect makes a tense smile demand, “get on with it!” not from impatience, but because the mounting pressure must mercifully be released before further burdening the brain.
Shortly thereafter, “Goodnight Mommy” barrel rolls into a third act that is torturous for more tangible reasons. A story whose cinematic language once whispered only in silent nuance starts screaming with the urgency of a “Saw” sequel. For better or for worse, “Goodnight Mommy” moves suddenly from arthouse to grindhouse. While appreciating the different territorial turns taken is far from impossible, the movie runs so many routes that each sprint is cheated by having to share space with pieces not playing nice as a team.
“Goodnight Mommy” has nail-biting climactic minutes. The final 15 are energetic, devious, and occasionally hard to watch in the way fans of visceral terror love. The downside is that a majority of the runtime is spent waiting for such a moment to come and when it finally does, retrospect shows the build didn’t bring anticipation all the way across the finish line.
Innumerable thrillers have previously used the same “twist” and the way “Goodnight Mommy” employs it extinguishes the main mystery in a disappointing puff of smoke. The replacement plot retroactively not only proves most of the movie’s key moments to be red herrings, but red herrings for virtually a completely different story.
Because of where the jump ultimately lands, atmosphere rich with suggestive venetian blinds, curiously blurred paintings, odd porcelain dolls, and continual cockroach assaults ends up establishing more tedium than dread. “Goodnight Mommy” is excruciatingly slow. Hour one features too much of the twins practicing belching, punching each other playfully, and wandering nearby farmland. Basically, Elias and Lukas behave as normal kids. Yet once they are established as such, continued exploration of their innocuous acts no longer provides a purpose. Such scenes work against tension by being too much of a boring respite. It is as though after intrigue is established and possible plotlines swirl in the mind, the movie says, “we’ll get back to that later. For now, wait within this montage of the boys frolicking in a field.”
On a technical level, “Goodnight Mommy” looks terrific. Timing choices aside, the film is edited well, photographed even better, and it can cut equally deep on visual and thematic levels. At the same time, a desire to be slightly surreal with artistic appeal in addition to slow-burn psychological thriller as well as eye-gouging horror neuters each tract from achieving full potential. “Goodnight Mommy” is a frustrating mystery of a movie both literally and figuratively, too often in ways that are ultimately underwhelming more than they are emphatically enthralling.
NOTE: The film’s German title is “Ich seh, ich seh.”
Review Score: 55