Even in times like these, when the multiplexes are flooded with so many worthy awards contenders and crowd-pleasers to choose from, it’s crucial to keep an eye on the arthouses. It’s amazing how much good cinema can fly under the radar, especially when the radar gets as crowded as it is now.
So at the behest of a correspondent, I was happy to clear some room in my backlog for Goodnight Mommy, a little horror movie out of Austria. The film had picked up quite a few good reviews, and it looked like a neat little bit of Halloween terror. But of course what I ended up getting was slightly different, to say the least.
Our young protagonists are played by twin brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz, conveniently playing identical twins also named Lukas and Elias. The two boys live with their mother in a house that’s more than comfortably modern, even though it’s heavily isolated and the neighboring property appears to be a cornfield. It perhaps bears explaining that their mother is a TV personality of some sort, and she’s done quite well for herself.
Speaking of which, the story begins as the mother (Susanne Wuest) has returned home to recover from a recent facial reconstruction surgery. Her reasons for the surgery are unclear. What’s worse, the mother begins acting in very unusual ways once she gets home. She acts erratic, sometimes to a violent or even abusive degree. Sometimes, she doesn’t even seem to remember basic facts about herself or her children.
So naturally, the kids decide to take matters into their own hands. And then the whole movie gets turned on its head.
Through the first half of the movie, we’re led to think that the mother is the monster. Then the tables get turned and we’re left to wonder if it’s the kids who are really the monsters here. It could easily go either way. After all, if the mother is overly stressed and a touch muddled after such a major procedure, who could blame her? Still, some crimes are simply unpardonable, and there are things that mothers and their children should never do to each other under any circumstances. And we get to watch them do a lot of those things to each other as the plot unfolds.
The filmmakers really went all-in with regard to the psychological terror and gross-out shocks. We’ve got blood, we’ve got roaches, we’ve got dead animals, and we’ve got the most traumatic scenes of interrogation and torture that have been put to film since Hard Candy. It was so very refreshing to see a movie put so much effort into suspense and a mounting sense of dread, without a single jump scare in the entire running time.
I wish I could say more about what unspeakable terrors come to pass as the movie unfolds, but heaven forbid I spoil anything and take away from the impact. Moreover, there’s the fact that I’ve just become too jaded at this point. Yeah, there are a lot of shocking, violent, and depraved actions that happen over the course of this movie, and I’m sure it would turn a lot of moviegoers away. But as for me personally, I’ve already sat through Antichrist, I Spit On Your Grave, and Hard Candy. Compared to those other films, this one was okay.
Also, I’m sorry to say that the film cheats. There are quite a few times — especially in the first half — when it’s shown that some horrific scene only turned out to be a nightmare. I know that it was crucial to make the audience question what was real — the themes, the conflicts, and a crucial third-act plot twist all hinge on that. I just wish there was another way of going about that.
It’s particularly frustrating when the movie is otherwise put together superbly. Every shot is simply immaculate, with still shots and handheld camera used in all the right ways. As for pacing, the filmmakers have the uncanny ability to hold a shot for just long enough to make the viewer uneasy, and cut away at the perfect time for maximum impact. The camera movements, camera placements, the lighting, and the use of shadows are all painstakingly detailed, done in such a way that it beautifully obscures whatever it is we so badly need to see. These filmmakers could make the most mundane action look absolutely terrifying, which is crucial for a story in which we the audience are never sure of who to trust.
…Except that the film answers that for us. Right at the very end, the movie explicitly tells us who was in the right this whole time. There was no need for that, and it takes away from a lot of the ambiguity that made the film so effective. The plot and the scares depended entirely on the question of who the real monster was, and when we’re explicitly told who the monster is, the film loses something irreplaceable.
Goodnight Mommy is a perfectly good film, with breathtaking visuals, a constant sense of overpowering dread, and the balls to portray some truly grisly acts onscreen. The downside is that we already have a film with all of that, and it’s called Hard Candy. Swap out the alleged pedophilia in Candy for the domestic troubles of Mommy and they’re basically the same movie in many ways, especially in the second half of Mommy. Hell, I’d say that as good as Mommy is, everything that’s good about it was done even better in Candy.
So, there’s my recommendation. Go see Hard Candy. If you have the stomach to sit through that movie and you’re crazy enough to ask for seconds, Goodnight Mommy is your fix.