Goodnight Mommy Is A Brilliant, Shocking Movie
I love horror movies and I consider myself unfortunate in that sense, because I want there to be a seemingly endless supply of really good ones at my fingertips, the way I rarely have trouble finding a great drama. And that supply just doesn’t exist. I’m a woman of discriminating taste when it comes to horror – I’m not a big fan of gory slasher films or torture-porn stuff like Hostel. I like the ones that get under my skin and into my head and scare me from the inside out. I like a slow build and drawn-out tension and stuff that scares me for reasons I can’t quite explain, but it just does because it gets at some visceral, primal part of me that says, “Yeah, no, this shit ain’t right.” So when I saw the trailer for Goodnight Mommy, a new horror film out of Austria, I was totally on board, because one thing the trailer makes clear is that there’s plenty of shit in this film that ain’t right. And boy howdy, that is an understatement.
I live in Chicago and have the benefit of a lovely, lovely old theater called The Music Box, which can always be relied upon to have limited-release documentaries and foreign films. So as soon as Goodnight Mommy arrived, I was basically banging down the door.
The story centers on two preteen boys named Lukas and Elias, who are very, very pretty identical twins. The movie opens on them playing together in the beautiful Austrian countryside, seemingly with no adult supervision. I loved watching their relationship in this film – they have the most wonderful closeness, an effortless intimacy with each other that I imagine comes from sharing a womb and basically everything else. They barely need to speak to one another.
Then Mommy comes home.
Nothing in this film is laid out for us in an obvious way. Everything is expressed through context clues and subtlety. When Mommy comes home, her face and head are fully wrapped in bandages, leaving nothing exposed but her mouth and (very bloodshot) eyes. We only infer gradually, through little comments and one really uncomfortable parlor game, that she is a moderately-famous TV personality who has just undergone significant cosmetic surgery. But from the moment she appears on screen, something feels wrong. We learn bit by bit that the Mommy who left for surgery was a warm and loving mother who sang soft lullabies to her cherished sons and left them a recording of her singing one to listen to while she was away. The Mommy who returns home is cold, aloof, and downright frightening. She appears to be punishing Lukas for something by ignoring him, only addressing Elias directly, only pouring juice for him, etc. She demands no shenanigans, closed blinds, and almost total silence while she rests and recovers in her bedroom, which seems like a lot to ask of young boys. When they disobey (or she simply becomes suspicious that they have disobeyed), she is vicious and violent. I cringed in my seat and groaned seeing it. There’s a lot in this movie that’s hard to watch – it plays on several different fears and phobias, so whatever freaks you out, it’s probably in there somewhere.
The boys gradually become more and more convinced that this woman in their house is not their mother. But there’s a poignant uncertainty as well…they’re just kids, after all, and they’re afraid and want their mother and don’t want to fully believe this woman is an impostor. Even so, they resolve to get to the bottom of this mystery and find out if she is who she claims to be.
That’s where it gets really unsettling.
Kids can be so cruel, you know.
After this point in the film I hesitate to give much detail, because the series of shocks that follows is deliciously harrowing and extraordinarily well-done, and I would hate to detract from anyone’s experience of it. I’ll just say that Goodnight Mommy is exquisitely written and directed; the tension, violence, and creep factor are firmly and confidently controlled for every single moment. As I write this, it’s been more than a week since I saw the movie, and one of the most vivid memories I’ve carried away from it is me and the people on either side of me gasping and cringing and peeking through our fingers and making audible noises of shock and discomfort. Shit. Gets. Real. What I really loved about this latter part of the story is that suddenly my alliances were called into question and I felt uncertain and unmoored and not quite sure who I was rooting for anymore. Through most of the movie, I rarely felt like I was on entirely solid ground when it came to who these people are and why they’re doing what they do and whether or not those actions are right. That’s the genius of it.
In reading other reviews of the movie, I learned that plenty of people saw the twist at the end coming. I will admit with a bit of chagrin that I didn’t. But even if you do guess or even merely suspect, I don’t think it detracts all that much from the sucker-punch of an ending. Personally, I can’t wait to get back to the theater ASAP and see it again so I can watch for the clues I know are there but missed the first time around. I also want to see it again because I still have questions. To enumerate them here would ruin the fun for those who haven’t seen it, but I will say that while the twist explains quite a bit, it definitely doesn’t wrap things up neatly, at least not on the first viewing. I love movies like this. It’s one of the reasons I love movies like Fight Club so much: They’re great fun the first time through, but you notice more and more little clues with each subsequent viewing and grin wickedly to yourself.
Goodnight Mommy is scary on both a cerebral and visceral level, so I think there’s something for everyone here. There’s subtle, goosebump-inducing creepiness, a bit of violence and gore to flinch at, bugs, animal carcasses, and at least a full cubic fuck-ton of suspense. If you like horror, see this film. See it immediately. But you’ve been warned: It haunts you long after it’s over.