Director(s): Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Runtime: 99 minutes
The recent revival of slow-burning, atmospheric horror thrillers has been one of the most welcome trends in years. Having shrugged off the need for grotesque displays (the so called "torture porn" subgenre) indies and studios are catching on to the notion that more blood and gore is rarely needed. The horror genre thrives when it takes time to build towards bursts of violence and terror. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's Goodnight Mommy certainly understands these principles. It builds gradually, teasing the viewer with cryptically creepy details before segueing into the R-rated stuff. Which is why it's a shame that the film is missing something more substantive underneath the polished and menacing aesthetic.
Set in rural Austria, Goodnight Mommy opens on twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they play games in a field. The pair lead each other on journeys in and around their home, a puzzling beacon of chilly Euro modernism surrounded by pristine landscapes. Like many kids, Lukas and Elias run to the door when they hear a car approaching. Mommy's home!
But Mommy (Susanne Wuest) is looking a little worse for wear. Having returned from extensive facial surgery, her face is almost entirely covered by bandages. She sleeps most of the day, and demands absolute silence from her two boys. And even when she wakes, Mommy's persona is hardly a warm, nurturing one (even by Austrian standards). She haunts the house while awake, drifting from room to room in loose fitting fabrics that flutter around her bony physique. Elias and Lukas grow suspicious of their mother's frosty new demeanor, and start to monitor her actions as tiny red flags start to go up.
This is the part where I wish I could talk about how Fiala and Franz successfully build up a creepy mystery, but I can't. For all of the things that Goodnight Mommy does right, it is put in danger of losing the audience within the first 10 minutes. A crucial twist (in fact, the twist) is hinted at so early that questions about where the story is headed mostly fly out of the window. One becomes fixated on whether the heavy-handed foreshadowing is a red herring, and if not, then what could be the reason for doing something so obvious? I hoped that Goodnight Mommy would find some way of justifying the inevitable turn of events, but it never does. That's not to say that the film doesn't make sense, but its climactic revelation abandons a rich set up for an obvious finale that loses impact the instant the credits appear.
A good twist should enable the viewer to rethink everything they saw before and, on repeat viewings, pick up on details that they never knew were important to begin with. Goodnight Mommy shoots itself in the foot by providing details that never fully distract from our initial suspicions. Fiala and Franz trap themselves into choosing between two possible answers, and they pick the inferior option. Goodnight Mommy's final act is wince-inducing and quite often chilling, but it's hard to watch without sensing the missed opportunities. When narrative choices lead viewers to ponder what would have been more intellectually satisfying, it gets in the way of appreciating the good things about an artistic endeavor.
So while we're at it, let's mention some of those good things. Despite the one note nature of the script, Fiala and Franz's work as directors is quite satisfying. Working with a team of skilled collaborators behind the camera, the duo do an excellent job of stealthily ratcheting up the tension. Even when the instructions of the page irritate, one can simply luxuriate in Goodnight Mommy's rich visuals, which have a potent mix of icy and sun-dappled imagery.
Performances are also quite striking, which adds another layer of polish to this sophisticated effort. Young children in horror movies are never a sure bet, but the Schwarz twins are very good in their roles. Their picture-perfect Aryan innocence has a blankness that can be used for to suggest the roles of victim or aggressor. Wuest is excellent as well, and plays Mommy as an actual person rather than a domineering monster.
In fact, just about everything in Goodnight Mommy is top notch, which makes the film's nonexistant impact all the more frustrating. Horror movies are rarely treasured for their scripts, but in character-driven work like this, the writing needs to be on the ball. There is something deeply creepy and twisted buried in the framework on Fiala and Franz's film, but it never materializes consistently. Some stunning visuals and a few jarrings scenes aren't enough. This is one of those movies where so much is done right, but ultimately so little about the final product that feels worthy of enthusiasm.