Whenever I can, I like to go into a movie blind, knowing little to nothing about it. That’s how I went into Goodnight Mommy. The only thing I knew about it was that I’d read some positive tweets about it and that it is Australian. It turns out that I only knew half of what I thought I knew because the movie is AUSTRIAN. Those are very different places, producing very different types of genre films. Despite avoiding trailers (don’t get me wrong, i love a good trailer), synopses, and reviews, I’d still managed to build an expectation for the film that was shattered within the first few seconds of the opening credits. Austrian? Ummm… Hands of Orlac? Taxidermia? That’s all I’ve got. Needless to say, I had no idea what to expect.
Goodnight Mommy tells the story of identical twins, Elias and Lukas, who spend all of their time together – mostly without adult supervision. (letting 10-year-olds run all over the countryside unsupervised – swimming, throwing hailstones at each other, climbing over skulls in an ossuary, etc. – would be negligent in the U.S., but maybe that’s just fine in Austria.) The boys’ mother returns from somewhere (presumably a hospital or clinic) with her head wrapped in bandages. Her surgery is mentioned, but we never find out what type of surgery it was. (it looks like it may have been a nose job) She very pointedly ignores Lukas, only interacting with Elias. (spooky voice: it’s as if he isn’t really there!) Additionally, she behaves erratically in other ways. She is so harsh with Elias, that he suspects that she is an imposter. His paranoia (and Lukas’s whispers) turn him oppositional to the woman. She doesn’t handle this well and punishes him harshly, which fuels the fire of his psychosis. (once you’ve seen the movie, you will appreciate how clever that last sentence is, I’m sure) Ultimately, his actions become intensely, violently desperate, leading to a shocking climax.
This film shows so much potential! The Capgras delusion is a paranoid conviction that your loved ones have been replaced by impostors. This is a real-world terrifying fucking thing! Any film that handles the Capgras delusion even moderately effectively should creep out its audiences. Identical twins are an oft used device for creating an uneasy atmosphere in film. This works, because very few people can relate to having another human being look exactly like them. On top of that, we (those of us who are not twins) are inclined to believe the idea that twins share some telepathic/empathic bond that bends our understanding of reality. So, we find twins unsettling and creepy. (no offense, weird twins of the world) Any film that handles twins even moderately effectively should creep out its audiences. Goodnight Mommy has all of this but still manages to miss its mark. (which, I assume, is to scare audiences)
There are many great things about this film. Directors, Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, have crafted a visually haunting film. This is especially remarkable considering the posh, modern vacation home setting. The cinematography is lush. There are some clever symmetries of image (and dialogue) that reveal a commendable attention to detail. And there is some gut-wrenching violence. But the filmmakers seem to have included too many items from their brainstorming session. (i picture a huge whiteboard scrawled with – Capgras delusion, twins, The Other, The Descent lady climbing on bones, torture porn?, super glue, fucking cockroaches!, creepy cemetery, dead animals, divorce confusing for kids, corn fields, are you the same person after plastic surgery?, fire, masks, bondage, strangers wandering into your house, that sped up head shaking from Marilyn Manson video, child abuse, seeing your mom naked, somebody hiding under the bed, ghosts?, box cutters, menacing children, creepy lullaby singing, what if Capgras delusion WASN’T a delusion?, ambiguity, basements, basement freezers!, abandoned towns, homeless people) Had the film had a stronger focus it may have been one of my favorites of the year. Even as a metaphor, it doesn’t have a clear theme. Is it about the dangers of changing physical appearance? Is it about the poor state of mental health awareness/care? Is it about communication? (the whole movie would have been over after 30 minutes had the mother simply told Elias about that time she took him to see the circus or whatever, thus proving her mother status) Is it about the duality of man? I have no idea.
THE FINAL CUT: Goodnight Mommy is beautifully shot and features some very clever composition. The film doesn’t shy away from showing intense, graphic violence. There are hints of great ideas and engaging drama throughout, but it ultimately suffers from it’s own lack of commitment to a clear focus.