Rated R for disturbing violent content and some nudity.
Running time: 99 minutes.
Four stars out of four.
You shouldn’t be reading this review. I shouldn’t even be writing it. Every time I’ve recommended “Goodnight Mommy” to someone, I’ve warned that person not to read anything about it beforehand — just to trust me, and see it, and be mesmerized.
Yet it’s so great, I feel it’s my duty to tell the world about it without giving away what makes it great. So this review might end up being really short. But here goes …
“Goodnight Mommy” is an Austrian thriller about two 9-year-old, identical twins named Lukas and Elias (played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz) living in an austere, minimalist house in the countryside. They’ve been by themselves for who knows how long, waiting for their mother to return from the hospital after undergoing some kind of plastic surgery. Once she arrives, bandaged-up and barely speaking, the twins increasingly suspect that this person isn’t their mother at all but an impostor.
The premise alone is enough to give you goosebumps. But it’s the execution that’s the real marvel from the writing-directing team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, making their startlingly assured feature debut. “Goodnight Mommy” is intense and precise, from its big ideas to its smallest details. It consistently keeps you guessing, but it also dares to ask you to re-examine your feelings for and alliances with these characters. Nothing is simple or safe here, although the quiet purity of the film’s tone and aesthetic trappings might suggest otherwise.
It’s a horror movie in that horrific things happen, but it’s also a dramatic exploration of the bond between parent and child — specifically, between mother and son. A complicated dichotomy exists in our relationship with these little people we make; on the one hand, there’s a familiarity that’s infused within the fiber of our beings. I look at Nicolas sometimes and feel like I’ve known him my entire life. And yet they can also be baffling, maddening creatures whose actions shake us to our core and make us question everything we know. Or maybe that’s just what happens to me when Nic has a meltdown over sour gummy worms at the grocery store.
Being a parent makes “Goodnight Mommy” resonate on a whole different level, but it’s certainly not a necessity for being sucked into it. This is deft and daring storytelling that will grip anyone who’s willing to be a little uncomfortable — make that a lot uncomfortable — and who’s willing to follow it into some dark and twisted territory. There’s a brief respite of comic relief about halfway through when a pair of Red Cross workers knock on the door, then sit at the kitchen table waiting for someone to give them some sort of donation. It’s also a welcome reminder that an outside world does indeed exist, given the claustrophobic situation Fiala and Kranz have created. But that’s about it. “Goodnight Mommy” escalates, and it is relentless.
The tension is palpable from the start, though — long before the boys’ mother returns, and even during activities that would seem to radiate the wholesomeness of carefree, childhood fun. Lukas and Elias play hide and go seek in a cornfield, or chase each other across the lawn, or bounce up and down on the trampoline. But the use of natural sound attunes us to the hidden, dangerous rhythms of their games. There’s an underlying hum in the sound design — a buzz that grows — which tells you something isn’t quite right and provides an early, sinister tone.
Similarly, the house itself is a consistent source of the film’s atmosphere. Chilly, industrially chic and crammed with bizarre art, it reminded me of the house in “Ex Machina,” and I’d move into either of them tomorrow. (I’m not sure what this says about me.) Foreboding lurks around every sleek corner. It is simultaneously full of light and bereft of joy.
As for the performances, both Schwarz brothers and Wuest are in the tricky position of having to play it as understated as possible even while their characters go to extremes, and they consistently find that balance. Then again, “Goodnight Mommy” is full of such fascinating contradictions and surprises.
Just trust me. See it — and then we can really talk about it.