Goodnight Mommy


Movie review by Greg Carlson

Bearing a handful of the stylistic touches of prominently credited producer Ulrich Seidl, Austrian horror-thriller “Goodnight Mommy” turns the screws of its nasty little bal masque until many viewers will avert their eyes. Written and directed by Seidl’s partner and frequent co-scripter Veronika Franz and Seidl’s nephew Severin Fiala, “Goodnight Mommy” – retitled from the original “Ich seh Ich seh” for English language markets – twists the home invasion premise of fellow Austrian Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” into an oedipal pretzel. While not as unrelentingly bleak as Haneke’s vision, the abundantly creepy “Goodnight Mommy” easily gets under the skin.

When the heavily bandaged, post-surgical mother (Susanne Wuest) of pre-adolescent twins Lukas and Elias (played by brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz) returns to their isolated retreat in the country, the boys begin to suspect that the woman is an imposter. Wisps of exposition answer a few questions but raise others as mama and her boys move swiftly toward irreversible dysfunction. The ensuing power struggle, during which the filmmakers shrewdly manipulate viewers to switch allegiances several times, escalates into a series of increasingly gruesome confrontations. Franz and Fiala observe from a chilly distance, content to let the beautiful 35mm photography of Martin Gschlacht play the leading role.

Some horror aficionados will compile a checklist of influences while watching “Goodnight Mommy,” noting the film’s sympathies and/or intersections with works like “Eyes without a Face,” “Audition,” “High Tension,” and “Borgman.” The ambitions of “Goodnight Mommy” are measurably smaller than these titles, however, especially in terms of the core relationship dynamics. As we yearn to know more about the curious bond of brother to brother and mother to sons, the directors get in their own way for the sake of a crucial plot point. A more thorough examination of character might pay greater dividends when we arrive at the combustible conclusion.

To great relief, the bloody rictus of “Goodnight Mommy” is attended by several instances of bleak humor, although individual mileage will vary depending on one’s tolerance for large cockroaches, lethally modified toys, and liberal applications of polymerizing adhesives (cat lovers deserve fair warning as well). In one terrific display of Hitchcockian Bomb Theory, two unwitting Red Cross volunteers come calling for a donation at a particularly delicate time. Franz and Fiala delight in the complication, showing a penchant for suspense while both mother and sons, for different reasons, sweat out every excruciating second of the visit.

For all of its beautifully austere compositions and long takes, “Goodnight Mommy” strains to back up the startling shifts between languorous privilege and lightning strike violence with any deeper exploration of identity, vanity, femininity, and class. The filmmakers are more successful delineating the remarkable contrast between the sleek modern angles of the family’s architecture-porn enclave and the natural world surrounding the compound. In one of the film’s most effective sequences, Lukas and Elias descend into a cavernous ossuary, crunching bone fragments with each footstep. The history of those mysterious skulls contained inside, like several other unsettling details in the narrative, go deliberately unexplained.

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