Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz's Goodnight Mommy is perfect Mother's Day fare, if your idea of Mother's Day involves packing tape, sharp cuticle scissors, and a magnifying glass.
The premise is simplicity itself: identical twins Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz, real-life brothers) are enjoying the perfect summer vacation--a swim in the lake, a hike in the woods, a brief spell exploring a small cave where a whimpering cat lies wounded (the nature of its injury never really clarified) on a floor of thighbones and skulls.
That latter detail by the way is typical of how the two directors work: an otherwise idyllic image with some persistent detail--a too-lengthy gaze into a dark hole or a boy holding his breath underwater for an unnerving amount of time--suggesting all is not as it seems.
That style arguably has its finest moment with the arrival of the boys' mother. Long shot of the house as a car arrives; the boys run eagerly into the house and up the stairs and into the bedroom; cut to a figure (Susanne Wuest) with her back to us standing at the far end, just as she pulls the blinds shut. She turns and walks up close, and you can see the dark bruises, the bandages crisscrossing her face. "That's a fine hello," she notes as they stand at the doorway, uncertain. Is this their mother?
Fiala and Franz sustain that uncertainty for an admirable amount of time, with mother and children working through the haze towards some kind of understanding. At one point the trio play a parlor game, a stick-it note on the forehead while the player asks 'yes or no' questions--when the woman gets "MOM" taped on hers she can't guess the answer no matter how many questions she asks her kids. Later she yanks the video game they have been playing and lays on new ground rules: no playing indoors, no loud noises, and if visitors call they're to be told that "Mommy's ill." The twins look at each other and whisper: "She's so different." "It's the operation." "Are you sure?"
The film despite all the serene landscapes and that vast modern mansion feels confined, even claustrophobic--for all the space allowed them their gaze is fixed inwards, inside the rooms at each other. Not especially useful as a character study--too much information is withheld for too long, and the surreal details don't really add up to a convincing portrait of the interior state of anyone. But as a parody of mother-son relations--and more to the point, of mother-son tensions--I think it's a hilarious success. The twins and their suspect mother are obviously working out some unspoken trauma, their exchanges if anything tamer than the kind of conversations you hear in actual households nowadays (it's not so much what they say as what they feel and eventually do that's so disturbing).
There's a narrative twist, though not all that twisted--any reasonably alert viewer can figure it out less than ten minutes into the picture--but Fiala and Franz do perfectly fine without the surprise, keeping the film balanced between dark deadpan domestic comedy and straight-up Neo-Gothic horror (the setting may be ultramodern chic but the required looming shadows and dark passages are there, even the requisite giant portraits--here made up of mysterious blurred photographs that suggest watching presences). More interesting than the twist is a kind of point-of-view pivot (something Jennifer Kent's The Babadook tried with far less success)--Mommy arrived wrapped in bandages; at about the one hour mark the bandages are gone but now the twins have donned masks, bizarre green insect faces trimmed in red. foretelling the mayhem to come.
Fiala and Franz's psychological horror film evokes the look and feel of several others, from Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth to Michael Haneke's Funny Games to M. Night Shaymalan's recent The Visit, not to mention the unflinching plainspoken camera of Ulrich Siedl's Dog Days (Franz is married to Siedl, who produced this film). I'd even throw in Dan Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield Lane brief domestic parodies (in Tracthenberg's film it's a pretend family playing at house; in Fiala and Franz's film it's a more or less real family, but the domesticity is just as false).
The final ten or so minutes (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) erupt into action, as if to make up for all the static shots and tension simmering through the previous two-thirds. Which is unfortunate--when the film is static and simmering you feel as if the filmmakers had something left in reserve, some mystery yet to be revealed; when hell does finally breaks loose the filmmakers unveil their twist, which we saw coming over an hour ago. Some of the effects are clumsy--a zoom-in to a blooded eye, for one, violates the film's sense of freakish serenity. On the other hand a later scene of Mommy naked in the woods and violently shaking her head has the eerie feel of a silent-movie nightmare.
Shaymalan's The Visit pulls everything together into a moment of love and togetherness (of all the recent horrors this one sustains our interest best); Trachtenberg's 10 Cloverfield ratchets up the tension nicely and for its climax manages to churn out a few well-staged, fluidly shot and choreographed action sequences before succumbing to a bad case of digital effects. Fiala and Franz don't seem to have the chops to do fast and furious, but when they're still and silent they're unnervingly so, and their film has a real presence. Looking forward to their next turn of the screw.
First published in Businessworld, 5.27.16