2015, R, 99 min. Directed by Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz. Starring Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, Elfriede Schatz, Karl Purker, Hans Escher, Georg Deliovsky.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 11, 2015
An unnerving descent into the extreme, anxious corners of a mother’s relationship to and comprehension of her 9-year-old twin sons – and vice versa – gone weirdly haywire, Goodnight Mommy is required viewing for both lovers of neo-gothic paranoia and mommy-haters everywhere. Co-directors and -writers, Fiala and Franz, have crafted a harrowing tale of familial distrust and disintegration and conjoined it to the innately surreal world of identical twins. The resulting film will make your skin crawl if you can stand to see it through to the end, despite the fact that canny viewers (and genre fans) will figure out what’s really happening relatively early on thanks to some well-placed, subtle clues. No spoilers here, though.
The Schwarz brothers give a pair of astoundingly mature debut performances as Lukas and Elias, twig-thin twins who become increasingly convinced that their “mama” (Wuest) is not really their mommy. That’s not surprising, given the fact that mommy has recently returned from some plastic surgery and spends half the movie with her head creepily swathed in oozy bandages. Initially, these pre-adolescent boys are presented as normal little tow-headed hellions, chasing each other through the cornfields near their remote Austrian homestead and giddily bouncing on their trampoline in the rain. Boys will be boys and all that, but Goodnight Mommy jaw-clenchingly cranks up the disquiet notch by notch as Lukas and Elias begin to mount an actual offspring insurgency against the lady in the cotton dressings that eventually ends in … well, you’ll find out.
Suffice it to say, fans of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games will feel themselves in similar narrative territory. The references to other psychological suspense films don’t end with Haneke, either. Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and even Jack Clayton’s 1961 reworking of author Henry James' The Innocents all turn up to one degree or another, with the cumulative feeling being not one of familiarity, but bad dreamlike déjà vu. Still, Goodnight Mommy remains wholly within its own isolated iconography of fear and, occasionally, absurdist black comedy, as when a pair of door-to-door Red Cross workers arrive out of nowhere seeking a donation from the lady of the house.
It’s the trio of chilly and chilling performances at the heart of Goodnight Mommy that raises the film to a higher level of existential dread. Olga Neuwirth’s nerve-jangling score, and the film’s unsettling sound design do much to induce anxiety bordering on outright, cringing panic. (As does the twins’ collection of pet Madagascar hissing cockroaches.) The whole is much more disturbing than the sum of its parts, being a nightmarish meditation on mutual distrust, which can also be viewed (if you want to go there) as a commentary on the current state of the EU. Whatever you choose to read into it, Goodnight Mommy roils with a barely submerged intensity that eventually boils over into sheer terror. Twins of evil? Or mommy darkest? No spoilers here, just an advisement that you may want to refill your Xanax prescription prior to seeing this one.