Goodnight Mommy is an Austrian film from two new director/writers, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. Having been to Austria, I can assure you that much of their art is incredible- and this movie is no exception. It also ended up being one of the most disturbing cinematic experiences I've ever sat through.
Goodnight Mommy is being marketed as a horror film, but the movie is far more reluctant to give away its own genre- which is precisely why it's so superb. And so horrifying. This is one of those movies that masterfully builds up to a crescendo of answered questions and distressing realizations, but it gives away nothing narratively or thematically on the way. Franz and Fiala prefer to let you stew in a different sort of fear: one of uncertainty; one of Das Unheimliche, to borrow a German term (it's an Austrian film, remember?) that has long been used to academically discuss horror film. It means "the unfamiliar" or "the uncanny"- the distinct feeling that we know the bare bones of what we're seeing, but it's being fleshed out and distorted into something frighteningly unknown before our very eyes. Goodnight Mommy is the most unheimlich movie of the year so far.
But again, I wouldn't necessarily call it a horror film. It's not trying to scare you; it's trying to upset you. As aforementioned, it does so by twisting a concept we're comfortable with into a form that's deeply unsettling. This concept is the relationship between a mother and her children.
The movie focuses on young twin brothers Elias and Lukas, who share a close bond with each other and with their mother. Or at least they used to, concerning the latter: once their mother comes home from a plastic surgery operation that leaves most of her face covered in bandages, she starts acting very strangely around her two sons. In turn, Elias and Lukas feel more and more reserved around their mother, and they begin to both investigate the reasons behind their mother's behavior and act out in anxiety.
And that's all there is to the set-up of the narrative. Franz and Fiala do enough with that premise to make your blood run cold. The twin child actors Elias and Lukas (do children have a hard time responding to names that aren't theirs?) pull off their roles with a surprising amount of seriousness, and Susanne Wuest is effectively impossible to nail down as their mother.
I say "impossible to nail down" because that's what Goodnight Mommy is as a whole. It never feels like it's strictly one genre- it often weaves uncomfortable humor into its uncomfortable fear- and that's largely due to the coy structure of the movie. It rarely expressly reveals the intentions of any character or the objective truth behind anything, purposefully blurring the boundaries between reality and perception. This is skillfully done in order to achieve the movie's most impressive effect: that painful uncertainty.
Near the last act, you'll end up trying to choose between many viable possibilities of what's really going on- but every choice is equally disheartening. The true terror lies in disarming the audience so that we can see no way out of Goodnight Mommy's twisted world. When all is said and done, we're left with a hole in our hearts and what is possibly one of the most haunting final shots in cinematic history.
Speaking of shots, the movie is shot on "glorious 35 mm film" (as is proclaimed after the credits), and it really is glorious. Shooting on actual film is not a practice that's done much anymore, but it's worth it when movies look this good. Thank you, cinematographer Martin Gschlacht.
If Goodnight Mommy has one flaw, it's that while the movie is not a typical horror film, it's certainly structured like one. The first act- while involving and unheimlich in its own right- occasionally feels like it's mostly build-up to what the movie is eventually trying to do. Or rather, what it is trying to make us do: choose between unthinkable alternatives that are both so awful, we'll walk away disturbed to the core either way.
And believe me: you will.