The trailer for Goodnight Mommy is one of the best horror trailers in a while–evocative, menacing, unreal. The mother of twin boys returns home, her face bandaged after a major surgical procedure. The boys think there’s something wrong with their mom, and that maybe someone else or something else has taken her place.
As I sat through Goodnight Mommy, it seemed like it would deliver on the promise of that trailer, deftly building layers of dread and suspicion. There are shades of Jennifer Kent’s excellent The Babdook, an unsurprising comparison given the family dynamic at play and the attention to visual suspense. There are also moments that remind me of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face and the films of Michael Haneke, particularly Funny Games. In its best moments, which are mostly in the first two-thirds, Goodnight Mommy achieves the uncanny and unnerving feel of a bad dream.
But eventually, an atmospheric and otherworldly film winds up becoming a source of narrative frustration.
Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich seh)
Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Your opinion of Goodnight Mommy may be contingent on your stomach for plot twists. I don’t like them about 99% of the time since they usually feel like hollow gimmicks rather than essential parts of the storytelling machinery. Twists feel cheap, and while I won’t spoil the twist of Goodnight Mommy, it certainly feels cheap when you know what it is. As a character uttered the line that reveals the twist, I thought, “Oh come on, Goodnight Mommy–I thought you were above this.”
In retrospect, the twist is there early in the film if I were to look for it, but I wasn’t looking for it because I thought Goodnight Mommy would be a much more original and interesting film rather than one that relies on a bad cliche. The excellent craft displayed by co-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala is what makes Goodnight Mommy‘s reliance on a twist so disappointing and its unraveling sense of purpose in the last third (maybe, really, the last fifth) baffling.
Consider the movie’s visual style for the first two-thirds of its run time. Many of the shots divide the frame into vertical halves, thirds, and quarters to emphasize elements in the foreground and background, all the while playing with light, shadow, and negative space. Large photos of the mother (Susanne Wuest) adorn the walls, but her face is blurry in all of them. On the one hand, this is the kind of artsy, pretentious portraiture you’d expect in an upscale home, and on the other, we have two boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) who question the identity of their mother. It’s the sort of detail organic to the world of the film and a visual representation of its central concern (i.e., Who are you really?).
And then there are details that seem like the cinematic attempt to recreate aspects of a dream. The boys keep Madagascar hissing cockroaches as pets. These are the massive sorts of roaches that are common in movies that feature cockroaches, and they look a lot more exotic than your foul, run-of-the-mill New York City waterbugs. The roaches hiss like they’re shushing the boys, like there are secrets in the house that are being kept, or as if the children remind themselves they need to be quiet in order to spy on this person who may or may not be their mother. The wallpaper in the boys’ room is covered in a googie-style wallpaper covered in ants. It reminded me of the popular design elements of the 1950s and the sort of playful decor you’d find in a day care or nursery, but also the crawly feeling one gets when something isn’t quite right.
That sense of contradiction–googie wallpaper that’s both cute and off-putting, the comforts and terrors of a home–is carried through in the performances. Lukas and Elias Schwarz seem both playfully insular together and yet they also have a touch of something sinister, which may simply be a symptom of seeing twins together in a movie (thanks a lot, Stanley Kubrick). Wuest plays the mother with emotional highs and lows. She’s tender, and she’s also terrifying. She nurtures, she scolds, and hugs, and she slaps. The performances may be mannered, but like the visuals and the production design, the actors propel the film forward and help evoke the uncertainties of dark rooms and nightmares.
So much ambiguity and promise to play with, and yet it comes back to the twist. The twist reduces all of the possibilities of this eerie, dreamlike world into a single possibility, and one that isn’t that interesting. This may explain why that trailer for Goodnight Mommy so good and the film doesn’t reach that level. I might have loved the movie if it wasn’t for that pesky story.