Cast: Susanne Wuest, Lukas and Elias Schwarz
Directors: Severin Fialo and Veronika Franz
Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Severin Fialo and Veronika Franz's Goodnight Mommy is a film which purports to be about the damaging psychological effects of altering one's physical appearance, but the only damaging psychological effects are incurred by the audience, who must endure nearly two hours of moody arthouse noodling before a late third act "twist". The twist, bear in mind, really isn't thematically resonant or deeply symbolic, but rather, yet another trope we've seen before tucked into a story that doesn't need it. Like Michael Haneke's darkly perceptive Funny Games, there are elements of class critique at play here, but unlike that film, Goodnight Mommy lacks a clear satirical bent. Instead, the film comes across like a rigidly controlled, deftly filmed, and utterly humorless depiction of what happens when talented people attempt to "art up" the torture porn genre.
The slipshod narrative follows twin boys (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) as they interact with their mother (Susanne Wuest), who has returned home from the hospital following an accident covered in gauze and bandages. We gradually learn that the mother was a semi-famous television personality with narcissistic tendencies, and that the tragic accident, along with a recent divorce, has thrown her into a depressive tailspin. Much of the film's first act follows the boys; whose emotionless expressions and lack of dialogue further intensifies the strangeness of their situation. Things tighten slightly once they believe that this woman may not be their mother at all, but some kind of imposter. The bulk of the film's second half therefore details their meticulous aims at figuring out just who this woman is and what she wants. However, because Fialo and Franz compose all of their scenes in the aforementioned Haneke style of detached minimalism, there's very little genuine tension. Instead, the film grows increasingly dull as it lumbers toward it's inevitably disturbing climax.
Instead of latching onto themes of bad parenting, dopplegangers, and self-immolation as a means for exploring what makes us human, the filmmakers simply trot out lazy plotting and cheap horror shock tactics. Nothing that happens during the final third matters very much since Fialo and Franz have failed to connect us to any of the characters, and even the torture porn elements fail to surprise, since they are part of what's now a well-worn genre. Meanwhile, the beautifully austere cinematography and masterful framing only reinforces the film's glaring weaknesses; one of which is that we simply don't care for any of these people (especially the two kids), and that the predictable slide into sadistic brutality is simply a gimmick rather than a deeper exploration of the psychology of the characters. We are expected to gawk, leer, and turn away in cringing horror at what people are capable of, but we never truly understand how or why these particular people are capable of doing the things they do. This wouldn't necessarily be a problem if the film was scary or nominally creepy, but the filmmaking is much too removed to elicit that kind of response.
The real impetus for Goodnight Mommy seems to be misdirection ratcheting it's way up to the aforementioned twist, but there again, the buildup is marked by a drowsy sense of inaction. We are never caught in the grip of the uncertainty since the directorial aesthetic is so finely tuned to the point of contrivance. Lastly, the film could have benefited from a livelier, B-movie kind of macabre humor, since this essential boils down to The Bad Seed, meets "Plastic Surgery: A Cautionary Tale." Instead, what we get is Misery mixed with a dark children's lullaby directed by Michael Haneke understudies.