Creepy, insidious, and disturbing in its cold, austere approach, Austrian film “Goodnight Mommy” is definitely not a pleasant experience in contrast to its innocuous title. As its decidedly baffling first half sets the unnerving undertone around the isolated background of the story, the movie keeps us wondering about what exactly is going on among its few main characters. When we are about to guess the answer for that, the movie has already gripped us tightly around that point, and it throws a number of gut-chilling scenes to strike us as mercilessly following its vicious narrative logic.
After the opening scene accompanied with a sweet, gentle lullaby, we meet young twin brothers named Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz). Like many young twins, they are inseparable from each other, and we watch them happily spending time together during their first scene, which looks simple and innocent at first but then feels rather odd and uncertain.
And this is just our first taste of the subtly awkward ambience to hang around the screen. While their mother is currently absent (their father is never mentioned, by the way), the twins are left alone in their posh lakeside house located in some remote rural area, and there is not even any adult to take care of these kids instead of their mother as they freely go around the surrounding area. You may wonder: what kind of mother can possibly allow that?
Well, we soon see their mother, and the movie strikes another nervous chord during her first appearance. For a rather unspecified reason, she recently received a facial plastic surgery, and her face is still covered with bandages when she returns to the house. She seems to need more private time for her rest and recovery, and she prefers to be alone in her quiet bedroom while not interacting much with her boys.
She sometimes spends time with Elias and Lucas, but the strained relationship between her and the twins feels palpable. During one particular scene where they play a guessing game, it initially looks like they are having a small family fun together, but then their playtime begins to feel awkward mainly due to the introverted attitude of Lucas, who always has Elias talk on his behalf while not willing to talk directly to their mother. Their mother tolerates this for a while, but then she becomes impatient and angry later, and that leads to one of the most hurtful moments in the movie.
Around that point, the twins begin to believe that their mother is replaced by an imposter, and I must confess that this reminded of my old childhood suspicion on my own mother. Thanks to many Korean folk tales I devoured when I was young, I once thought she was a thousand-year-old fox with nine tails, and I actually believed that she would snatch my liver at night while my father went out for business. After all, didn’t we all experience doubts on our parents when they became more distant and stricter than usual?
The movie lets us understand the twins’ growing suspicion as mostly sticking to their viewpoint, and there are indeed several weird things about the mother. For example, why does she order lots of frozen food enough to sustain her and her kids for at least one year? And why does it look like that she is madder at Elias than Lucas, despite that maddening failure to communicate between her and Lucas?
However, because of the detached attitude of the movie, we watch their increasingly ominous situation from the distance while not particularly siding with either of them. The mother does look fishy and elusive at times, but we also come to sense more of something unwholesome about the twins as they become obsessed with their suspicion toward the mother. There is a creepy scene in which the twins go inside a hidden underground place harboring some unpleasant things, and then there comes a ghastly moment involved with one of their pet cockroaches.
I was involved in how the directors/writers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala gradually dial up the level of tension and dread under their calm, confident direction. The slick, bloodless modern interior design of the house in the movie constantly conveys to us the stark, isolated mood surrounding the characters, and this queasy impression is further extended to one scene unfolded in a small nearby town, which also feels odd and strange with its barren, silent atmosphere.
When the twins eventually decide to do something about their domestic matter, the movie becomes more tense and disturbing as expected, and Franz and Fiala skillfully balance the resulting moments between sheer terror and admirable restraint. As far as I could see from the movie, these cringe-inducing scenes are thoughtfully handled while not demanding too much to its young actors, and Elias and Lucas Schwarz, who had no previous acting experience before their audition, are believable as much as their adult co-star Susanne Wuest, who is excellent in her difficult role.
“Goodnight Mommy”, which was the Austrian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards, is not for everyone to say the least, but this cold-blooded psychological thriller is worthwhile to watch for its competent filmmaking and good performance. If you are ready for something challenging, you will probably find it interesting and compelling despite its numerous uncomfortable moments – and you may also appreciate how its surprisingly sentimental final moment avoids being a mere sick joke as striking the right balance between despair and sentimentality.