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Review: Goodnight Mommy

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There’s a lot of unnerving tension crawling deeper and deeper under your skin for a good hour before we reach the final act of Austrian chiller Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh ich seh) and its cathartic horror climax where all that was kept subdued finally blows up in your face. However, despite the commendable effort, first time co-writers and co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala don’t fully accomplish what they set out to explore. 

Their disturbing tale of 9-year-old twin brothers Elias and Lukas (newcomers Elias and Lukas Scwarz) growing doubts about the identity of their mother (Susanne Wuest), will definitely unsettle you and intrigue you from its very opening image. What might probably disappoint you though is figuring out the mystery earlier than the filmmakers meant for you to unveil it. Yet there’s no denying Goodnight Mommy still manages to creep you out and it does so brilliantly with a magnificent use of cinematography, sound and production design.

Set in an idyllic corner of the Austrian countryside, mostly in and around a beautiful modern home nested deep in the woods, the story takes place in the summer as the two brothers enjoy running around and play non-stop in silly-child fashion. Their mother returns home, her face covered in bandages after undergoing cosmetic surgery, and since their first exchange with the mummified looking woman, it’s clear something is off about her.

Just like Elias says to reassure his brother, we want to believe it’s only normal to feel weird and uncomfortable after having gone through their mother’s unpleasant experience. But as the woman sets new living rules due to her condition which requires lots of rest, she asks the boys to keep all noise and play outside the house and the blinds shut since sunlight is highly damaging to her sensitive skin.

That may all sound reasonable but her stern tone doesn’t sit well with the boys who are used to sweet and loving demeanor from their mother. As we learn a little about her, like the fact she was in an unspecified accident and how she has separated from the boys’ father, we begin to empathize a bit with her situation. But as she reacts to the boys’ naughty child-shenanigans with a nasty tone and an aggressive attitude, Elias and Lukas’ worries begin to grow and so do ours.

The filmmakers do overall a good job at maintaining things ambiguous and that fine line about whether or not to believe the boys’ mother is constantly oscillating to great effect. Once again though, and that could totally generate from my personal perceptivity developed in this profession, I was able to make my guess about the central mystery earlier than the actual reveal, resulting in the film losing its initial impact on my psyche.

That said I still enjoyed the rest of the experience as things escalate in haunting and violent fashion and the actors deliver the goods. The Schwarz twins ooze a Village Of The Damned feel that leaves you chilled whilst Susanne Wuest is goosebumps-inducing with and without the bandages. The cast perfectly matches the mood and atmosphere of the piece, brilliantly crafted by the filmmakers with all the cinematic tools at their disposal.

There’s an undeniable Haneke-like vibe that pervades the film from start to finish and the locale adds immensely to create the notion that something is deeply disturbing about what we’re watching. The devil’s in the details like they say and the filmmakers profusely sprinkle them around aesthetically, crafting a rather intense sensorial experience which effectively makes us doubt of our own sanity.

Once the premise is established and clues make their way on screen, the level of dramatic impact the revelation will have on the audience seems to be worthy of a Shyamalan-esque twist. That’s why I was left a bit disappointed by such elements not being concealed as efficiently as I was hoping for, or maybe it was Franz and Fiala’s intention to do so anyway. In the end, this is at the core a drama about a broken family and rarely separations are fun things, especially for children.

Addressing such themes within a genre film is not always easy and the filmmakers need credit for relentlessly building tension with little basic tricks of the trade. Long takes, unsettling silences, abrupt noises echoing in empty rooms, plus the contrast between the aseptic interior of a modern home kept clean and tidy in OCD fashion and the messy, primordial wilderness of nature outside make for a unique cinematic journey worth taking, even if you’re one of those viewers prone to jump on your seat and cover your eyes a few times.

3.5-out-of-5

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