Mild Spoilers for Goodnight Mommy
I’d like to preface this review by assuring you that I am no lightweight when it comes to watching horror films. On-screen violence and gore usually elicits the expected level of shock and disgust, while body horror reliably grosses me out.
Part of my love for scary movies is remembering that a movie is only a movie, and art is only art. The onscreen images are powerful, but they aren’t real. I’ve never forgotten that fact. I have never had to run for a bucket, nor have I fainted in a movie theater.
So when I almost fainted during Goodnight Mommy, it was because Goodnight Mommy is so precisely calibrated to create a deeply disturbing experience that I forgot to breathe.
As I lay on the carpet in my living room, waiting for the walls to stop swaying, I realized that Goodnight Mommy is one of the most harrowing horror movies I’ve ever seen. My friend spoke softly to me, coaching me through breathing exercises and assuring me we didn’t have to finish the movie if I didn’t want to. Which was so embarrassing, to say the least.
I watch intense movies all the time. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer shocked me deeply. Irreversible was so disturbing I never want to see it again. Martyrs, with its heartbreaking and soul-crushing violence, depressed me for days. But none of them made me almost faint.
No, somehow Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, the writers and directors of Goodnight Mommy, found a unique recipe for a horror film. Through a combination of excellent writing, dogged devotion to dark themes, searing performances, deft management of tension, and an unflinching attention to detail, Fiala and Franz created a blistering film.
Goodnight Mommy is unafraid to confront the darkness inherent in the most uncomfortable topics, like grief, identity, our perceptions of ourselves and others, the power dynamic between parent and child, and everyone’s capacity for commit atrocities.
As GQ put it, this film was “straight fucked up.”
Goodnight Mommy is the story of Lukas and Elias, preadolescent twin brothers. Lukas and Elias spend every waking moment together exploring the wilderness around their sleek and isolated home. They play hide-and-seek in corn fields, venture into abandoned tunnels, collect huge cockroaches, and have a general good time being boys. Their happiness is short-lived when their mother returns home after undergoing a mysterious operation that has left her entire face covered in bandages. Instead of greeting her sons with love and affection, she is cold, distant, and mean, demanding complete silence in the house. She refuses to acknowledge Lukas’s presence, becoming angry and frustrated at any mention of the boy. The twins begin to suspect that she is not really their mother, that a menacing stranger is impersonating her. They resolve to find out the truth, no matter the cost.
Now, before I review the movie, I want to address the “twist,” which isn’t really a twist. Critics and viewers alike have obsessed over this plot point, claiming it made the story predictable or confusing. Personally, I don’t see how a reveal can be a twist if it happens at the beginning of a film, especially when there is an actual twist later on.
In case you don’t want to know, turn away now.
Basically, the “twist” is that Lukas is dead and Elias is the only character who sees him. The reveal occurs ten to fifteen minutes into the movie in a very telling interaction between Elias and his mother. The filmmakers are not stupid and clearly understand the horror genre. They’re aware that most everyone who sees a movie like Goodnight Mommy has probably seen The Sixth Sense, The Others, and A Tale of Two Sisters. Fiala and Franz were wise to get the reveal out of the way so as to avoid unfavorable comparisons to those famous films where major characters have been “dead all along.”
This clever storytelling choice also offers a unique movie experience. With that big question answered, Goodnight Mommy can focus on uncharted territory. It was much eerier and more chilling to witness Lukas influence Elias, to watch the twins’ shared distrust of their mother grow into calculated and deranged violence. It remains unclear to me if Lukas was a ghost or Elias’s own psychological projection, but it doesn’t matter. What’s important is that Elias believes Lukas is alive, and he uses Lukas’s presence to justify his actions.
As far as story and writing goes, Goodnight Mommy is excellent. Anchored in Elias’s perspective, the film does a very good job at seeing the story through a child’s perspective. In the world of a child, there are few things that do not fall into clear-cut categories—light vs. dark, right vs. wrong, good vs. bad. Like all human beings, children see the world as they wish to see it, filtered through their own insecurities about being small and dependent. A child can see a threat as more than it is, one that deserves a powerful counterstrike. Through moments of genuine tenderness between the twins, the film demonstrates how much their relationship means to each other and how threatening their mother is.
That aspect of the film was oddly relatable. The scenes between Elias and Lukas where they huddled under a blanket and discussed their mother in hushed, worried tones resonated with me. How many times did I do that same thing with my little sister or friends concerning ghosts or the boogieman? How many times did I totally misinterpret my parents’ motivations and experience fear and anger as a result? The writing shone a light into the dark recesses of a child’s mind, confronting our assumptions that children are always innocent and harmless.
At its core, Goodnight Mommy is a film about assumptions. The twins’ mother makes the fatal assumption that her son’s delusions are not serious. Elias (and maybe Lukas) are unable and unwilling to look past their assumptions that adults are powerful and controlling. Using these assumptions as justification, the twins are able to perform the necessary mental gymnastics to justify torturing their mother. Such is the danger of assuming your moral superiority is absolute, an awful mistake everyone can commit.
While the writing was mostly tight and well-executed, it felt like there were important pieces of the story left unexplained, so much so that some plot developments lacked emotional resonance for me. For example, I never learned what accident killed Lukas or what Elias’s role was, if any. And I never learned why the mother initially played along with Elias’s delusions before changing her mind. I think the decision to avoid developing certain pieces of the story forfeited a good deal of narrative gravitas, which would have made the movie more devastating.
Additionally, I found it difficult to discern the motives of the mother throughout the film. While her emotional distance from the viewer was meant to replicate the twins’ distrust and suspicion for her, I’m not sure if it paid off. I found myself confused at times—why would she undergo a serious surgery and not have anyone else around to care for her son? Is she that selfish? Say she is selfish—why would she leave her obviously disturbed son unsupervised for extended periods of time, even if she didn’t realize the extent of his psychosis? I just don’t see a parent, especially a selfish one, remaining in an isolated house with creepy, sad Elias.
This is not to denigrate the actress’s performance—I thought Susanne Wuest, who played the mother, was amazing. In fact, much of the success of Goodnight Mommy rests with the actors.
Wuest gave a completely dynamic performance, at times cold, resentful, tender, angry, desperate, insecure, controlling, suspicious, and terrified. She swung effortlessly from mood to mood within scenes, but her performance never felt unwieldy or inorganic. She was fearless in demonstrating her character’s vulnerability, lashing out at a child in one scene and then begging for mercy in another. She brought a lot to a character that probably would have felt very flat without her expertise.
Wuest also gets major points for her method acting, going so far as to “train” with cockroaches for several weeks, all in pursuit of a scene where a live cockroach crawls into her mouth. I would have lost my shit.
The boys proved themselves very capable actors as well. Sometimes I have to judge child actors on a different rubric than adult actors, making excuses here and there for uneven performances. I don’t feel that is true for Elias and Lukas, played by real-life twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz. They seemed comfortable on camera, portraying the love and playfulness between brothers in a natural and relatable way. Alternatively, their mutual ease evaporated in the presence of their onscreen mother. In such moments the boys would stiffen and become sullen. Elias would become more vulnerable and unsure while Lukas became defiant and confident.
Not that Lukas was the more commanding screen presence. Quite the contrary, while Lukas was the more dominant twin, the interplay between Lukas and Elias was well balanced. Their dynamic felt honest and unforced. I saw Elias’s inner conflict as Lukas worked to convince him their mother is a liar. I watched Elias struggle to hold back a flood of emotions while Lukas eggs him to continue torturing their mother.
With three talented actors, it was no wonder that the interactions between mother and sons were strained. Both Wuest and the Schwarz twins kept their emotions subdued, roiling just beneath the surface. There was such a gulf between them, that same seemingly insurmountable divide between family members who can’t remember how they grew apart. The mother and twins tiptoed around each other, spied on each other, lashed out at each other. Their words were full of tension and resentment. Their everyday interactions were dripping with suspicion, fear, and hurt. It was like watching a fencing match, all elegance and posturing until someone leapt forward to strike.
“Ready to strike” is how I could categorize European horror films of this caliber, many of which t enhance the horror by manipulating the viewing experience. The (unsurprising) technical strategy of Goodnight Mommy involved establishing an artificially low baseline for the film’s tension and horror, reserving narrative space to escalate things.
The filmmakers did a lot of work to lull me into a false sense of calm. The cinematography is a star in its own right—the frame composition is poised, stunning, and artful. Jungian images and Christian iconography abound. Certain scenes were framed so beautifully I went back later to watch them again. The film made me contemplate the early scenes as the camera moved leisurely through the space. The interior scenes are awash in soothing, muted tones of white, gray, and beige. The exterior scenes are filled with sparkling sunshine and lush vegetation, lending a certain serenity to the setting. Even the striking interplay of light and shadow reinforced the tranquility of the natural setting.
The sounds were also important in this film. Every little thing had a distinct sound; it wasn’t obnoxious or overwhelming, and often amounted to what I would call ambient background noise. The sounds of chewing, the crinkling of a wrapper, the dull clink when someone sets down a glass. Here it became something else, a sign of life punctuating the stifling stillness of the secluded house.
Most importantly, the film’s steady gaze, used earlier to a convey the languid feel of a summer’s day, became the tool with which Fiala and Franz terrorized their viewers. Much of the first and second acts were slow, building the tension. It was all nicely shot scenes of the twins playing and exploring, of the mother coldness towards them, of the twins whispering about their fears. As Elias became more and more convinced his mother is a stranger, the film continued its measured approach by showing his horrific dreams and his even more horrifying deeds.
Consequently, the filmmakers had a lot of room to really and truly escalate the horror. Dark hallways became sinister. Those lovely composed shots of nature became lovely composed shots of Elias and Lukas fashioning menacing arrows. Light-soaked rooms became hellish, one of Elias’ preferred weapons in the film’s third act. The film refused to look away for much of it, fixing its gaze, forcing me to watch. When it did look away, the soundtrack, which I was acutely aware of, assaulted my ears with screaming, moaning, and the revolting sounds of torture. The sounds of a crunching cracker gave way to the disgusting sounds of cockroach being eaten. The sound of a dead bug catching fire became the sound of burning flesh.
By the end, Goodnight Mommy’s calm demeanor became indifference, which created a VERY jarring effect when contrasted against the chilling and brutal climax. There was no relief, and because the film worked so hard to make disturbing every little detail, every little sound, every little act, I physically couldn’t turn away. I was transfixed, totally hypnotized by the film.
So hypnotized I forgot to breathe.
Perhaps my reaction was rare. Perhaps others will watch this movie and fail to see how the film could elicit such a strong reaction. I can understand that. Everyone is different.
But I don’t see how anyone could watch this film and not be in awe of how good it is. Regardless of the physical effect of its horror, Goodnight Mommy is an impressive, artful, terrifying film. I cannot wait to see what Fiala and Franz do next.