★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Patience will pay off for the audience willing to persevere when watching this multi-troped thoughtful drama. The horror comes late, and with an emotional punch.
Directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Rarely have I watched a movie that flips your perspective on who the antagonists are and who the protagonists are more than this compelling Austrian film. The IMDb narrative description of this movie is “Twin boys move to a new home with their mother after she has face changing cosmetic surgery, but under her bandages is someone the children don’t recognize.” That really doesn’t encompass what’s going to happen in this movie. There are echoes of movies like The Others, Misery, The Sixth Sense, and Audition in Goodnight Mommy. Pause. Did you catch that? That last comparable film should give you notice. Like Audition, this movie builds quietly and slowly and finishes in a way that is straight-up torture porn, be warned. It brings you in gently. Almost to the point where you are begging the movie to give you the scares… but those scares do come, and it’s painful to watch.
Like the referenced ghost story movies, Goodnight Mommy raises some metaphorical shoes very early in the movie, and you wait for those shoes to drop. And you wait. And wait. And the film resists delivering on that potential energy for a very long time. The film opens with the scenes of two brothers, Lukas (Lukas Schwartz) and Elias (Elias Schwartz), actual identical twin brothers, playing chase in an Austrian farm. Right at the beginning, there is an ominous, but inconclusive moment where you suspect something dreadful might have happened, but after a brief moment, the movie picks up again suggesting that everything worked out ok. After the opening credits, you see Lukas and Elias still at play, when a car arrives at their home, they rush back to greet their mother. Their mother (Veteran Austrian TV actress Susanne Wuest) has her head wrapped in bandages, and the boys are disconcerted because they cannot verify that this is indeed their mother. She scolds them and sends them off to get cleaned up… or rather… you begin to figure out she is only addressing Elias, and not Lukas. Veterans of ghost stories will instantly pick up that perhaps something dreadful did happen to Lukas, as multiple hints get made that suggest that either Lukas is a make-believe brother, or a ghost, or some figment of Elias’ imagination. What is only hinted at is never firmly established, and that shoe hangs in the air for a very… long… time. C’mon! Drop, shoe! Drop!
This movie is heavy with imagery and very light on exposition. Why is mommy all wrapped up in gauze? Why can’t she seem to remember key things about the boys? Where is the father? Why do the boys collect cockroaches? (If those roaches are native to Austria, yeeeeerrrgggh!) Why the portraits of the shadowy figures in the house? How is it that door-to-door charity workers think it’s ok just to walk into a home? (Is that an Austrian thing?) Whose tombstone is that where the boys are praying at? Why did somebody deliver a whole bunch of frozen pizza? And why can’t Elias and his mom just talk things out? So many questions, and not many answers. The writer, Veronika Franz, has left many story threads out there, many of them left unpulled.
The on-going passive aggressiveness between mother and son(s) is a central theme. They spy on each other. They plot, and scheme, and suspect the very worst of each other. There are times where you are convinced that mommy is an abusive doppelganger, set on doing serious harm to the boys. There are other times when you are convinced that the Elias has gone nuts, and is beginning to drift into the madness of conspiracy theories and is conspiring with a brother who probably isn’t really there. And this sense changes every twenty minutes or so throughout the film, and your allegiances switch as you try to puzzle out what the background of the story is. It’s a very strange film in that way.
This feels like a four-act play, and the fourth act ending conclusively with those shoes finally landing like anvils falling from fifty feet up. Eventually, the switch flips from passive aggressive to full-on aggressive behavior. It’s powerful, hard to watch, and oddly my sensation of the final moments was sadness tinged with horror. The horror is amplified because of the personal stakes involved, like Audition, there is a real bond between these parties, and when the horror gets serious, it is impactful and cringe-worthy. I got the sense that things didn’t have to end like this. All parties contributed to the final fateful moments, but if any of the characters in this film had taken some rational time to really talk through their issues, all of this could have been avoided. There are times when you can really see the affection between the characters, but the trust just never existed. And, perhaps they all were a little too psychotic and paranoid to avoid their fates.
To date, this is the only film on the Schwartz brother’s resumes, which is rather astonishing. According to IMDb, the producers auditioned 240 sets of twins before settling on the Schwartz boys, and it paid dividends, big time. They are convincing and compelling kids, and as has been mentioned on this site before, if you have an entire movie that hinges on a convincing child actor performance, let alone two, you have succeeded mightily. The movie is in German, with English subtitles, and the original title was Ich Seh, Ich Seh (I See, I See) which actually makes more sense than Goodnight Mommy. This movie racked up a whole mess of awards for its run through the festival circuit, including a couple of Saturn Awards for the Schwartz brothers and best foreign film by Fangoria. And, the reason why I just watched this film was because it is in The Scariest Things Top 100 Horror Movies of All Time! So, I had to see what the fuss was about. Personally, I admired the movie a whole bunch, and applaud the acting and cinematography. However, I did find the story frustrating at times, and it really took its time to become a horror movie, so I hesitate to rank it as one of the all-time greats. Not often do I wish for more exposition in a movie, and I understand that the writer, Franz wanting to keep certain parts of the film a mystery, but it’s a pressure builder with no relief valve until the very end. It is definitely a film worth watching, and if you like your horror heavy on drama and plot twists, and you can stomach a little torture, this might really appeal to you.