Overview: Twin brothers develop suspicions regarding their mother, whose face is covered in a post-surgical bandage. RADiUS; 2015; Rated R; 99 minutes.
How to Twist: Goodnight Mommy does not have a twist, at least not in the traditional cinematic understanding of the word. Dependent upon one’s level of familiarity with the sort of films from which Goodnight Mommy draws its influence, the speed at which the movie reveals its narratively transformative secret will differ for every viewer. Because I have wasted much more energy than I would like questioning the value of movies that are seemingly built specifically to support a singular story-changing reveal (Identity and Hide & Seek), I picked up rather quickly on this story’s veiled detail. But writer/director duo Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz imbed their secret with a delicate grace, the thread meant to be neither wholly invisible nor disruptively bold, but rather an organic inclusion in the larger fabric. This storytelling decision and the supporting craftsmanship is something to behold, the way the movie and its subject family work around what character psychology dictates can’t be plainly exposed.
A Haunting Song: Fiala and Franz’s movie tiptoes so attentively, though once again not for the sake of fooling its audience but for allowing their characters to exist honestly, that the first half feels something like a screen dance. Goodnight Mommy, which is scored with a very bare and basic tonal arrangement, feels very musical. There’s an almost indistinguishable beat in the screen movement, a sort of rhytmic ballet built of both motion and stillness from the life, landscape, and décor captured by Cinematographer Martin Gschlacht’s camera. From Mommy’s (Susasane Wuest) transfixing house decorations, to the sometimes unnatural way her sons move around one another, to the literally-pulsing ground upon which Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz) explore, everything in the first half of the film feels precise and scaled.
Waking in Fright: While there isn’t a distinct narrative twist, the film does embrace a violent shift in tone once it assumes the viewer has intuited the totality of the family’s truth. Whatever ease and poetry existed in the film’s set-up, an opening that prepares the viewer for a dark and surreal Haneke-styled thriller, it’s completely abandoned in pursuit of more biting menace and uncomfortable fright. The second half of the film is blinding horror, and, with the ruler adjusted, it is equally precise in that genre measure. But, unfortunately, that also means it trades tension and dread for malice and wholly forfeits some of its now half-complete observations on identity and mourning.
Overall: Goodnight Mommy is a pairing of two ordered nightmares. While each is well-handled, viewers engaged by the first might be disappointed by the content of the second, and those hoping for the second may not have the patience for the first.