A twist at the end leaves the film largely devoid of meaning.
What do you want from a movie? Tight narrative construction that makes you think ahead, guess and get swept up in the story? Maybe big ideas and/or visceral gut punches, something that will make you cry, contemplate or both? Or perhaps virtuoso editing, cinematography and/or effects that privilege spectacle and audio/video experience over traditionally “literary” qualities like narrative and theme? Goodnight Mommy, written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz (the latter of whom wrote the commendable but provocative Paradise trilogy, directed by her husband Ulrich Seidl) is a film that inadvertently brings that question to the forefront. A twist at the end leaves the film largely devoid of meaning, but it retrospectively illuminates small details and scenes as the crucial moments in the narrative.
The film concerns twin children, aged about 10 or so, forced by their mother not to play outdoors and to keep the blinds shuttered while she recovers from a facial operation that keeps her head bandaged. The twins, Elias and Lukas, surprised by their mother’s sudden strictness, begin to suspect that she is not their real mother.
Reference points abound, with fellow Austrians Ulrich Seidl and Michael Haneke showing themselves in compositions and in the film’s most brutal half hour, the bandaged mother recalling Eyes Without a Face, while The Omen and The Others show up in conception and particulars, respectively. It’s appropriate, because ultimately what Goodnight Mommy opts to be is a taut and well-executed genre film, one that effectively utilizes the tropes of the psychological horror film but is content to stop there. Elements of the Gothic beyond mistaken identity also pop up, with attention explicitly being drawn to the family’s wealth at one point, but these seem incidental rather than integral.
Indeed, it’s these Gothic portions of Goodnight Mommy, when the twins are suspicious about their mother’s identity, in which the movie is at its best, forcing viewers to decide which party is disturbed without offering any consolation either way. The horror, if Goodnight Mommy can be said to fit the genre, is in the realization that people can have dark sides far worse than what one could have imagined and in the volatility of truth, the way one may willfully deny something and rationalize their lies. When it transitions to something less psychological and more twisted, it seems to cater to the stereotypical horror fan, mistaking an escalating series of tortures and shocks for development, and lingering in the moment for so long that it becomes clear the directors are far less interested in thematic elements emerging from the Gothic tropes.
Nonetheless, Goodnight Mommy does not fall apart altogether, having successfully and subtly dictated the viewer’s allegiance and developed palpable stakes with far-reaching consequences. It does, however, skirt a little too closely to Funny Games territory. Haneke’s film (or films: he made it twice, years apart, in two different countries and languages) confronts and condemns the audience’s taste for violence and gore, Goodnight Mommy merely indulges those same qualities. On the heels of an intelligent and effective hour, the softcore torture-porn is disappointing.
There is also a plethora of suspension of disbelief problems, not uncommon for the genre but more glaring given the somewhat obvious nature of the twist. It would not be hard for a mother to prove her identity, and she could easily explain a few of the appearance inconsistencies but avoids doing so solely to preserve the twist. These can be overlooked, particularly when the reveal—if the viewer hasn’t already guessed it—makes a handful of curious scenes, intratextual allusions and habits click into place. Still, Goodnight Mommy did not need to throw away what it was already doing so well just to show that it could succeed somewhere else, and it’s a shame that it does precisely that.