Director(s): Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Cast: Lucas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest
Goodnight Mommy is a depressing and agonizing experience, a pretentious art-house snuff film that pretends to have something to say about loss and grief, but ends up saying nothing at all. Although labeled as a horror movie, there is not a moment of this movie that is scary, creepy, unsettling, or surprising. It is certainly grotesque, especially in the final twenty minutes, which I’ll get to in a moment.
The first major issue with the film is its Big Twist. The movie goes to great lengths to be mysterious and to create an atmosphere of uncertainty. The twist itself isn’t revealed until the final five minutes of the movie. Unfortunately, the film’s big secret is so clumsily handled that it can be figured out in less than five minutes. It’s very easy to figure out what’s really going on in the movie, and because of this, the movie butchers it chances at creating the air of unease and uncertainty that it was clearly going for.
There’s not a whole lot that can be said about the plot. Part of that has to do with the fact that disclosing too much risks revealing certain things that are best left unsaid. Mostly it’s because there really isn’t much of a plot to begin with. A young television personality (Susanne Wuest) returns to her country home after undergoing cosmetic surgery; her face is wrapped up in bandages. Her twin sons Lukas (Lucas Schwarz) and Elias (Elias Schwarz) greet her with hesitation and suspicion. She seems more cold and distant with them (especially Lukas), and when the kids have a dream of cutting open her stomach and having cockroaches spill out from the open wound, they begin to suspect that she may not really be their mother at all.
Well, it’s more than the dream, actually. They see her wander into the woods one night, slowly taking off her clothes. She locks them in their room for a full night after they place a dead cat in a glass cage filled with embalming fluid (don’t ask). She refuses to feed Lukas, much less acknowledge him. She becomes physically abusive toward Elias during one intense squabble, and apparently recorded said abuse on her cell phone. Even when the bandages finally come off, they’re still not convinced that it’s her, for their mother would never do half of the things that she’s done to them.
They are determined to do whatever it takes to make this imposter confess what she’s done with their real mom, even if it means tying her to a bed and burning a hole in her face with a magnifying glass. It is here, in the final 20 minutes, that the movie veers into torture porn territory, dishing out a number of grisly and ugly scenes that can only be described as disheartening. If you think the bit with the magnifying glass sounds bad, just wait until you see what these kids manage to do with dental floss.
If anyone feels that I may have given something away, I assure you that I have not. Besides, the movie reveals more in the first five minutes that I’ve done in my previous five paragraphs. Casting the movie’s predictable and tired twist aside, this just isn’t a very good movie. As a study of a family coping with tragedy, the movie is empty, as it never really examines its characters or develops them into people we can believe in. As a horror film, it’s completely lame, never offering so much as a nanosecond of terror.
The two things that can be said in the movie’s favor is that it looks good and the acting is strong. The cinematography by Martin Gschlacht and production design by Hannes Salat and Hubert Klausnerare both very pretty and artsy. The Schwarz kids both turn in competent performances, and Wuest is heartbreaking as their (ahem) mother. But what does it add up to in the end? Fellow critics and even some audience members were able to find something about the movie to love, but I was mostly put off by it. When the film’s vile ending finally rolls around, I felt a little unclean and regretted wasting my time on the movie in the first place.
Look, I love horror movies, even some hard core ones, and because of all the rave reviews, I really had high hopes for Goodnight Mommy. But the movie is really nothing more than a geek show, well made and acted, to be sure, yet in the end, I just didn’t feel right.
Rated R for disturbing violent images and some nudity.
Final Grade: * (out of ****)