An Austrian psychological thriller, reminiscent of other European works such as The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar, 2011) and Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960), Goodnight Mommy is a recognisable narrative that seems to draw influence from well-known Korean horror A Tale of Two Sisters (Jee-woon Kim, 2003). The film is elevated through stunning cinematography and great acting but unfortunately falls short on narrative impact.
Despite knowing this film had a similar story to A Tale of Two Sisters, I do believe it would have been easy to guess ‘the big reveal’ despite not knowing anything about Jee-Woon Kim’s work. In this film by double team Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, a mother (Susanne West) returns to her modern countryside home where her two young twin boys, Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz) believe she has been replaced by someone else; this conspiracy is reinforced by the fact that her face is heavily wrapped up following plastic surgery and her previous motherly behaviour has disappeared. It is also implied that a tragic ‘accident’ occurred in the home prior to the surgery.
The indications that one of the young twin boys is actually dead aren’t unsubtle, but if you’re clued in to the imagery and interactions then it’s quite easy to pick up on. Knowing fairly immediately that Lukas is in fact a figment of Elias’ imagination and trauma gives away the mother’s strange behaviour, which in turn takes away from the mystery of the odd practices that should denote eeriness.
The tone of this film is muted, quiet, slow and smooth. The Austrian countryside with its large, gray, modern house stuck in the centre of its grassy fields immediately shows the displacement of its inhabitants – the unnatural against the natural, the intrusive figure of the medically-warped mother with her sons. The cinematography modestly acts as the indicator of the family’s trauma, ongoing and past. Everything looks clean and prim, hyper-focused on the presentation of the set and the aesthetic.
Unfortunately, the neutrality of the tone seeps into all aspects of Goodnight Mommy; the film stays at one level, one mode, for the entire narrative. It doesn’t feel like it goes anywhere, despite the more ‘gruesome’ scenes in the third act that you’d expect would elevate a scene. Instead, everything feels like and stays at one mood. The smooth camera movements and muted colours match the unenthusiastic storytelling. It almost feels lethargic and passive as a whole, which is a shame as the cinematography allows for a great foundation for the narrative and characters to leap up of and contrast against with the mystery and thriller genre elements, plus the ‘body horror’ which would have looked and felt even more impactful against the muted colours and clean camera movements.
I think the feeling of something lacking that I found from Goodnight Mommy was also due to the absence of any connection between audience and character, and the fact there was no fully-developed theme running throughout the narrative. The other psychological genre elements that were clearly evident did not link to any deeper concept. The ‘big reveal’, of one twin being dead, and the final scene of the mother burned alive by the remaining son (who kills himself in the process) has little to no effect on the scene or audience when there isn’t much connected to it in terms of theme or idea.
The film started out strong, setting the tone well and introducing the characters solidly, but it unfortunately doesn’t go anywhere despite very interesting ideas and routes it could easily have taken. The emptiness of the film means we become cut off from the characters, and we never desire anything for them or feel much against them. It’s a shame as the acting was great, particularly from the two twins; Lukas especially played the ‘evil twin’ role well, bringing the only eeriness to the final act that was already absent of it.