I’m not usually one to notice when foreign films wash up on American shores, but when a trailer for a film like Goodnight Mommy fires up the media hype machine, I had to keep one eye open.
For the majority of the Austrian film from co-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, I’d be remiss to have limited my field of vision. Coming in with the expectation of seeing something truly disturbing (the film clinches that in the climax), fine work from cinematographer Martin Gschlacht keeps you clutching at the armrest as he turns each empty room into its own haunted house and each shadow into a ghost. There are great trailers that mask a lousy picture and then there is Goodnight Mommy, whose trailer uses the gauze of a horror film to keep a tightly bound psychological thriller under wraps.
The film sets out to tell a tale of brotherly love, and through the first two acts it succeeds in out-Boyhooding Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Lukas and Elias Schwartz) realize life isn’t what it used to be when they move to a lofty new countryside home with their mother while she recovers from facial reconstruction surgery. Soon, exploring, collecting roaches and stray cats, and fighting like dirty little rugrats are off limits. Every action draws the scorn of Mom (Susanne Wuest) and the boys begin to wonder who exactly the woman under the bandages is and what she did with the warm, tender blonde who would sing them “Cradle Song” and tuck them in at night.
The idea for Fiala and Franz’s screenplay was partially taken from a reality show in which women volunteer to undergo plastic surgery. “Moms are separated from the children for a month or two and they get a new mouth, new teeth, new cheekbones, new haircut, and new clothes,” Fiala told Indiewire. “If you look closely at the children, their eyes are horrified.”
Questioning whether your parents really are your parents is a natural childhood thought (or fear) and the film builds Elias and Lukas’ youthful curiosity into a gripping display of fraternal teamwork. A deeply unsettling third act twist melds a collage of startling visuals and sounds—there’s almost no music in the film save a goodnight lullaby and a few key strokes of a piano—deceptive enough to give moviegoers an uneasy stomach by the film’s end.
Austria submitted Goodnight Mommy as the country’s Best Foreign Language Oscar hopeful. Not that I’m any kind of expert on the rich history of Austrian horror films, but if the flustered, scribbled notes I wrote in the dark are any indication, I’d be open to further examining what the country’s film industry has to offer… even if it costs me a night of sleep.