Submitted officially as Austria’s ‘Best Foreign Picture’ entry in this year’s upcoming Academy Award ceremony, Goodnight Mommy tries to accomplish an aura that is unlike the one most American horror films exude. It’s a constant state of unease rather than that of the quick shock of a scare, the fallout, the recoil and the attempt to rebuild tension in the following scene. Goodnight Mommy pulls no punches, which is respectable, but also its most obvious fault in that it just feels relentless for the sake of being relentless. Once an atmospheric, interesting horror film, the conclusion settles more on an Americanized torture sequence that throws off the balance from what started as a chilly high-concept thriller.
Two twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwartz) play outside everyday and explore the surrounding woods of their expensive home in the country, where they swim, hike, run, and explore caves all in the few miles from their house. They are left alone for the afternoon when their mom (Susanne Wuest) returns home from a facial procedure that seems cosmetic in nature. Wrapped in bandages, the only part of her face that shows are bloodshot eyes and slight bruising around her cheeks. When she is angry and acts strange, the boys wonder if it was really their mother that returned home that day or something more sinister.
In a film like this, atmosphere and tension are everything, and there is certainly plenty of that it the film’s first two acts. Before we learn what is really going on, the cat and mouse game between the twins and their mother is excellent. The film uses small things for ammunition like their pet beetles or using the mother’s bandages as a sickly mask. Especially if you’ve seen the trailer, the creature that comes home with its face wrapped in bandages and a fowl temper does not seem like a kind, caring mother. It’s this guessing game that keeps us engaged, especially when picking up on subtle hints regarding the individual twins’ relationship with their mom.
Dialogue is pretty thin here, as only small exchanges are heard, mostly just one of the twins calling out to the other in the dark, or the mom talking to them from behind a closed door. The film, in the beginning, treats her as almost supernatural, floating around in a robe and treating the kids with hostility that remains mostly unwarranted. Because you experience the film through the kids’ eyes, you see things like them staying up and taking shifts to watch for their Mom at night, and they make silly, fabricated weapons for defense.
The main flaws of this film actually, entirely, have to do with the payoff. The real peak of the action is a complete failure in lieu of the way that the film started. The first 45 minutes is so trippy, suspenseful and wonderfully directed that as the film takes a new direction that really doesn’t fall in line with the opening, your feelings about the quality of the film will definitely decrease. I will add a spoiler section below for my feelings about the ending. Proceed only if you’ve seen the film or want it to be spoiled.
For now, just take it like this: In 2011, a film called Silent House starring Elizabeth Olsen took a pretty similar path, style and feel, and was criticized because it was American. Similar events happen here, especially in the final act, but this film is acclaimed in America because of its country of origin. Make no mistake, if held to the same standard that we hold American horror/thriller films to, this is a movie with a lot of really good, and also a lot of really bad. There are ‘hide your face through splayed fingers’ moments, but also some ‘well, I wish they hadn’t taken it there,’ moments. The ending is not as complicated as many say, as well. Pay attention, and almost all will be clear.
***SPOILER SECTION, PROCEED WITH CAUTION***
So, the mother comes home with bandages and bruising on her face. The two twins are left home alone during the day, so we assume that the mother is gone for only a day, at the most, and her procedure was inherently out-patient. The kids do act a bit odd around each other, but it’s also not a surprise when they are a little freaked out by the way the mom’s face looks with all the bandages. I mean, look:
So, the mother acts very odd. She treats Lukas with a complete disdain, not feeding him, yelling at Elias for talking to him, etc. Elias and Lukas become very, very scared of their mother, and rightfully so, she is acting a bit odd, and punishing them way more harshly than she deserves. She also sets a slew of ground rules while she recovers from the operation. We learn early that the mother is on television, and while she is unable to guess herself in a game of ‘Headbandz,’ we learn that she does lack a bit of confidence despite being decently wealthy from her television appearances. All pictures of her in the house are blurred out, as to make more of a mystery on who the mother actually is, and whether or not this bandaged, crazy woman is really her.
I assumed, incorrectly, that the operation was just for cosmetic purposes only. We learn that I was incorrect, and it’s not a simple nose-job, but something a bit more. I’ll get to that in a second.
The twins dream together, so dream sequences that make the mother seem even more crazy than we had thought add to our disdain for her. Part of you rationalizes her behavior, though, coming out of the hospital and her kids acting a little strange, themselves.
The rising action really takes hold when the twins have reached the conclusion that the woman in their house is not actually their mother. She reveals her reconstructed face after a week or so of healing, and she looks normal, but a little bit different from what the kids’ remember her as. So, they tie her up to her bed and begin trying to get answers out of her.
Their methods, as indicated in their dream sequences, do not involve their beetle collection (thank god), but instead involve subtle things like dental floss, duct tape, super glue, and plastic bow and arrows. The mother, it turns out, is completely not an impostor, but cannot express to her kids that she really is her mother because they don’t believe anything she says. The aid of all of this is a picture with the mother sitting with a look-alike friend or sister, putting the paranoia even worse in the kids’ heads. Elias begins to crack and feel sorry, but Lukas urges him on.
In the climax, where they threaten to light her on fire, we learn that Lukas perished in a car accident, most likely the same one where the mother had to have cosmetic surgery to look the way she did before. Elias, unable to cope with the death, imagines Lukas throughout the film, which is why he wasn’t getting fed and was forbidden to speak to him by his mother. We learn about an ‘accident and separation’ from a phone call with the mother, so the Dad is clearly not a part of the picture, and the accident is confirmed, being the cause of Lukas’ death. We then, in that moment, justify some of the angrier things that the mother dead. She does slap her kid a few teams, and there’s a bit of unease in her parenting skills, but when your son is hallucinating, there’s a cause for concern. Unable to cope with the brother’s death, and still not believing the mother, Elias lights the house on fire, presumably killing the mother and himself.
The ‘goodnight’ and the lullaby theme that opens and closes the film, to me, is about the way we try to set the kids to rest. The mother used to sing it for her children, and it could possibly be the reverse in the kids trying to kill her. Elias, in lighting the house on fire, joins Lukas in the afterlife with his mother, and all is settled again. The issue is that in the second-to-last shot of the house on fire, with trucks and police officers all around, a woman walks in the bottom left of the screen in a nightgown of the same color that the mother wore. It could be possible that the mother survived and only Elias and Lukas died, with a dream sequence overlapping reality. It’s obvious Elias/Lukas are untrustworthy vessels to view the action, so it’s up to interpretation. I assume that Elias died, and visualizes joining Lukas and what he believes to be his real mother in the unknown, while the mother may live on.