Director-Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Starring-Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz
Scott’s Review #833
Reviewed November 21, 2018
Goodnight Mommy (2015) is an Austrian film that is not for the faint of heart nor for the squeamish. Being a seasoned viewer in diverse, bizarre, and otherwise unpleasant cinematic experiences, the film was nonetheless a tough watch for me. Universally lauded and even submitted as Austria’s Foreign Language entry for the Academy Awards, I found the film at times pointless and gratuitous in its torture scenes. Still, the film stayed with me days later and that is always a positive.
In a peculiar and unclear story opening, we witness a mother (Severin Fiala) and nine-year-old twin sons (Lukas and Elias Schwarz), residing in a remote lakeside location surrounded by cornfields and nature. The mother (character unnamed) is disfigured and wrapped in bandages with only her eyes and mouth revealed, a haunting and grotesque image. The twins, Elias and Lukas, are very disturbed by her appearance and concerned when she begins acting strangely, ignoring Lukas entirely and chastising Elias repeatedly.
Through a game that the mother and twins play, the audience learns that the woman is a television personality- has she had a face lift by her own choosing or has she been in an accident? As she acts cruelly and selfishly towards the twins they begin to question whether the woman is really their mother or a fake. They become determined to find out at all costs, turning the tables on the mother, resorting to tortuous methods to get the truth out of her.
A few positives for me in Goodnight Mommy are as follows. The Austrian setting and language are huge strengths in adding to the mystique of the overall film. The unfamiliar (to me) speech and the remote modern home that the mother uses as a sanctuary work very well. In this way loneliness and isolation are infused into the film giving a measure of dread. The way the plot continues to un-fold and the circumstances are slowly revealed is a good thing. The how’s and the why’s of the mother’s surgery come to fruition and allegiances switch from the boys to the mothers over the course of the film, which I found interesting.
The major negatives are the motivations of the twins and the big reveal at the end of the film- a reveal easily figured out within the first portion of the running time. Though not shocking, the revelation only complicates said motivations and questions abound. Is one of the twins just plain crazy? Who is the woman in the photo with the mother dressed exactly like her? If this is a red herring, no wonder the twins think this woman is impersonating their mother. The mother not being able to escape the twins clutches is a bit hard to swallow- remember they are old nine-years-old!
The torture scenes are brutal for the audience to endure. As Elias and Lukas tie their mother to her bedpost and demand she reveal she is not their mother the methods they resort to are devious and cringe-worthy. Prolonged in nature so that the viewer feels they are also being tortured, when the twins burn her face with a magnifying glass, the process is slow and excruciating. Later, they decide to super glue her mouth shut and when they realize she cannot eat, they sever the glue with scissors leading to a bloody mess. These scenes are tough to take.
The point of Goodnight Mommy (2018) seems rather, well, pointless. Torture for the sake of torture and many plot holes or story dictated plot devices- who did not think that the Red Cross would fail in rescuing the mother? Nonetheless, the film does contain a mystique and an unnerving, haunting quality. The viewer will undoubtedly be kept thinking about the subject matter and the ending, specifically the final still-frame.