Review: GOODNIGHT MOMMY, An Unsettling Nightmare
Austrian arthouse horror Goodnight Mommy gets under your skin early and stays there long after the credits. Within its sparse and sterile decor, this minutely observed chamber piece tears apart the constructs of the family drama.
Following an accident, a heavily bandaged mother lives with her twin sons in a modern, isolated house in the countryside. The trauma of the event lingers on, creating a tense atmosphere in the home but the twins suspect that the woman living with them may not be their mother. High strung, she treats the boys badly, yelling at them and locking them in their room for the slightest infractions. When her behaviour becomes too much to bear, the twins set to unmask her true identity.
Like some of the best horrors, Goodnight Mommy gets deep into the headspace of its main characters early, mounting tension and a palpable sense of dread through the introduction of incongruous elements such as a horde of cockroaches, a dead cat or the crawling ant wallpaper of the twins' bedroom. By the time the first droplet of blood is shed much later in the film, the effect is so intense that it may as well be seeping out of your own skin.
Taking place in a sleek but bare home filled with neutral colors, the main house of Goodnight Mommy is almost a character in and of itself. Foreboding as it stands alone in a forest clearing, the house acts a blank canvas as the raw anxieties of the protagonists are projected on its unadorned long walls and thin white blinds.
The symmetry and perfection of the abode also seems to have an effect on its inhabitants. The beautiful blond twins appear to be in control while their mother, heavily bandaged from her injuries, is a nervous wreck. When the action does leave the house (which isn't often) the locations used, not to mention the way they are captured, are equally effective, such as the endless symmetry of the fields and forest which the characters get lost in or the undulating and cracked earth that the twins traipse over at the very beginning.
Performing for most of the film with her face obscured by bandages, Suzanne Wuest plays a fragile woman reeling from a tragedy and unable to handle her children, who are quickly driving her to the edge. Raw and unhinged, Wuest's performance is an integral part of the film's paranoia inducing atmosphere. As an audience surrogate, she's our gateway into the story's potent horrors. Elias and Lukas Schwartz, as the twins, are deeply unsettling, freakishly calm and almost fearless despite their circumstances.
Among the only things that undermine an otherwise taut script are the poorly hidden secret that for many will be an unsurprising revelation at the very end, and a stilted and overlong sequence involving a pair of elderly visitors to the house. Even though the twist does fall flat, if it is indeed intended to be one, the finale is still enormously effective, raising the lingering fears of the narrative to fever pitch and closing the story out on a suitably grand and disturbing note.
Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have positioned themselves as an imposing writer-director duo with this ferocious debut (which was also produced by Ulrich Seidl), demonstrating a keen ability to match striking mise-en-scene with a sharp, character-driven screenplay that takes it time yet never lets the tension drop for a moment. Unsettling for the duration, Goodnight Mommy is an involving nightmare you won't soon forget.
Review originally published in slightly different form during Fantastic Fest in September 2014. The film opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Friday, September 11, via Radius-TWC.
- Severin Fiala
- Veronika Franz
- Veronika Franz (screenplay)
- Severin Fiala (screenplay)
- Lukas Schwarz
- Elias Schwarz
- Susanne Wuest
- Hans Escher