Mother and sons do existential battle in chilling, nasty, gorgeous 'Goodnight Mommy'
Goodnight Mommy RADiUS-TWC
Director: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Screenplay: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Starring: Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, Susanne Wuest and Hans Escher
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)
Death hovers over a horror film like a permanent guest. But what lingers within the eerily quiet house and surrounding countryside where Goodnight Mommy takes place is something altogether scarier, more insidious. Not death, but disappearance. Not the end of life, but the portent of its absence - if you'll forgive the tenuous but key distinction.
Everywhere you look, the film's characters and other figures are being threatened by the possibility of erasure. At the end of the main entryway of the family home - which a single (widowed? divorced?) mother shares with her identical twin sons - hangs a full-length, black-and-white photograph of a woman so out of focus she seems to be fading out of existence. The motif remains the same in the family room, where in the evenings the mother (Susanne Wuest) and children gather in front of a similarly blurred image of another personage in front of a window. We can't even tell if it's looking out or looking in. (Various images throughout the movie frame Wuest against a window - from both sides - including a low-lit shot of her silhouetted against the floor-to-ceiling windows, the daylight piercing the blinds transforming her into an abstracted shadow.)
Over in the hallway, the two boys, Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz), stand in front of the wall of framed family photos, no doubt staring at the conspicuously blank spaces in the middle of the collage - photos removed, people vanished, from their former occupancy. As we get acclimated to the house and the strange dynamic between mother and sons in the early sequences, the film takes on the feel of a wake.
What to make of Mother, in particular? When the movie opens her entire head is cloaked in facial bandages that make her practically invisible - all we see is eyes and a mouth. We're told she underwent a reconstructive procedure; how significant, Elias and Lukas can't yet tell. But they quickly become convinced she's not their mother at all, but an impostor. During a round of the "Who Am I" game the three play together one evening, she fails to realize that all of the boys' clues are describing her. Her identity remains a mystery even to herself.
It's not much better for the boys. From the beginning, Mother cruelly and deliberately ignores Lukas - apparent punishment for an unspoken slight or infraction.
There's a cold, spiteful dynamic to this collective relationship that settles in right from the start, with seemingly everyone on the verge of fading into memory. Or worse, of having their identities stamped out altogether. What will happen when Mother takes those bandages off? Will they recognize her? Will she be the same person?
Early on, a sort of dance of suspicion and psychological gamesmanship emerges between the inseparable twins and their mother, but things inexorably take a turn toward the perverse and the malevolent. One act of childish cruelty begets another, begets another. The fluid, ambiguous nature of the three characters' identities doesn't make it entirely easy to determine where (and from whom) the true malice initiated. But the increasingly terrifying behavior - and icy, unreactive presence - of Elias and Lukas certainly tips things in one direction. (That chilling stoicism, particularly on the face of one of the twins, is reflected by the film's visual style, made up of static, matter-of-fact shots that make moments like, say, one character placing a live cockroach into the mouth of a sleeping family member all the more alarming.)
Doubling motifs are all too common, but Goodnight Mommy directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz cleverly enshroud theirs in a potent blend of images and story details related to the concept of identity. Not just the virtual interchangeability of the twin boys, but the continuous idea of a before-and-after version of the mother, the presumptively absent member of the household that remains oddly unmentioned, the conflation of the characters and the visual cues that surround them. Identities dissolve into and out of one another, wading in a sort of limbo between reality and memory.
Fiala and Franz, who also wrote the script together, imbue the film with a wry, deadpan wit (certain moments reminded me of Chabrol); they have the right knack for this sort of psychological horror, simply with the way they can hide ideas in plain sight, often surreptitiously revealing information with a seemingly casual edit. The film does, almost by default, have a twist of sorts - but to me, it feels like something they want us to understand long before it's spoken out loud. One particular shot of a household appliance is all the hint we need. The twist is not the bedrock of the narrative; it's basically just a detail, a deceptively small piece to a larger (and less concrete) psychological design.
Goodnight Mommy is stark and funny and, for a time, unblinking in the depiction of rather vicious (if playful, in an odd sense) physical and emotional cruelty. What sticks, and what these filmmakers seem to fundamentally understand, is the idea that what's ultimately scary about death is not death itself, nor the violence of it. It's the loss of self - the prospect of nonexistence.