Efficient, nasty action scenes can't overcome mostly bland characterizations and a half-baked story.
Ever since it debuted at last year's Venice Film Festival, the Austrian import "Goodnight Mommy" has been building up a reputation as a horror exercise of the highest order—the kind of film that could supposedly reduce even the hardiest of observers into quivering blobs of jelly squirming in their seats, partly out of what is happening on the screen and partly out of fear of what might be coming just around the corner. As someone who has seen more than his fair share of such films that have failed to live up to their hype over the years, I tend to approach such things with more than a healthy dose of skepticism. In this particular case, the movie in question has more than lived up to its advanced word. In fact, co-filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala have conjured an intelligently staged and executed creepfest that takes one of the most universally compelling of notions—the unbreakable bond that exists between a mother and her children—and approaches it in such a formally and narratively bleak manner that it makes the works of fellow countryman Michael Haneke seeming almost benign by comparison.
As the film opens, 10-year-old twin brothers Lukas and Elias (played by real-life twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz) are playing tag in the cornfield outside their isolated home while waiting the return of their mother (Susanne Wuest) from facial surgery. In theory, this should be a joyous time but from the moment she returns home, her head completely swathed in bandages, it quickly becomes apparent that something is not quite right. Instead of the warm and cheerful presence that she apparently was before going away, she is now as cold and remote as the house they uncomfortably share (with its brutally sterile air and large supply of unnerving nooks, crannies and hallways, it seems to have been designed by the people who did the residence of the good doctor from "The Human Centipede") and demands constant quiet and no sunlight to help aid in her recovery. To make matters even more off-putting, she has begun to clearly favor Lukas over Elias, even going so far as to refuse to even speak to the latter for unknown reasons.
Despite her wishes, the brothers are inseparable as they go about spending their time together doing things that range from the perfectly normal (jumping on a trampoline in the rain) to the odd (exploring a nearby tomb) to the downright icky (collecting giant beetles in a fish tank). As time passes and their still-bandaged mother continues to act stranger and crueler, the boys become increasingly convinced that they are dealing with someone who is pretending to be her. Since they have no one else to turn to (their father is briefly referenced once but there isn't even a picture of him in the house and the local priest that they flee to merely brings them back home), they begin plotting amongst themselves, and when the bandages come off, so do the gloves as they tie up the presumed interloper in her bed and begin using such items as scissors, a magnifying glass and their seemingly limitless capacity for cruel invention in the hopes of getting the answers to their questions about who she is and where their real mom might be.
A film like "Goodnight Mommy" is extraordinarily difficult to pull off and not just because of the intense emotional and physical cruelty depicted throughout. For something like this to work, there has to be a believable balance to the narrative for at least most of its running time—we have to understand why the kids would be convinced while at the same time holding out the possibility that they are misunderstanding the situation and that the woman they are torturing really is their mother after all. The screenplay that Franz and Fiala have come up with is fairly ingenious in the way that it toys with audience allegiances by presenting them with a scenario in which neither party is acting logically by any means. Yes, "Mom" comes across as cruel and withholding and it sure seems odd that no one seems to have accompanied her to the hospital or cared for the boys while she was away. On the other hand, the two kids seem just a little too aggressive in their retaliations for comfort. As a result, even as the film begins to head towards its shocking finale, most viewers will still find it difficult to decide who, if anyone, they should be rooting for.
And yet, while the screenplay is a marvel of construction (one that is constantly flipping the page on viewers while still maintaining a certain internal logic), it is only one of the reasons why it works as well as it does. Making their debuts as feature directors, Franz and Fiala demonstrate a genuine gift for filmmaking—they know how to milk a scene for maximum tension without resorting to cheap scares, how to create quieter moments that allow the characters to become more than figures designed solely to be manipulated by the plot and how to mine the increasingly grim happenings for a certain amount of dark humor. (There is one great scene in which the boys attempt to distract visiting Red Cross solicitors in the kitchen in hopes that they don't investigate the odd noises upstairs coming from "the dog.") The three central performances from Wuest and the Schwarz brothers are all excellent in the way that they make the shift from malevolence to sympathy and back again without it ever coming across as forced. Adding to the unnerving quality of the film as a whole is the gorgeously haunting 35mm cinematography by Martin Gschlacht and the quietly unnerving sound design that suffuses even the most ordinary of moments (admittedly a rare sight here) with a sense of dread and uncertainty.
"Goodnight Mommy" is a viciously effective horror film but it is clearly not one for all tastes—some viewers may find it a little too chilly and remote for its own good and those who are put off by the sight of ugly bugs or adorable animals that meet sad ends may find certain parts of it to be unforgivable. However, those with stronger constitutions will find it to be an excursion to the cinematic dark side that is a million times removed from such recent genre gibberish as "Unfriended" or "The Gallows." Are you that type of viewer? Here is a question. I mentioned Michael Haneke earlier in this review—did you see and enjoy (perhaps not the right word) both versions of his highly controversial "Funny Games"? If so, this should be right up your alley. If not—well, you have been warned.