“Twin boys move to a new home with their mother after she has face changing cosmetic surgery, but under her bandages is someone the children don’t recognize.” — IMDb
Goodnight Mommy is a great example of how more can be done with far, far less than many movies attempt. Also known by its original title of Ich seh ich seh (German for I See I See), it was written and directed by Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala in both of their full-length feature film debuts. It perfectly demonstrates how the familiar can be much more terrifying than any outside monster could dream.
It opens with twins Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz) playing outside while they await their mother’s return from cosmetic facial surgery. Things are immediately awry as mom (played by Susanne Wuest) now acts very strangely — ordering them to keep the blinds closed and noise to a minimum to aid in her recovery, but also pointedly ignoring Lukas and lashing out at Elias when he misbehaves. The boys soon start to suspect that the woman under the bandages isn’t their real mother…
** SPOILERS! **
They did an amazing job at even making some of the most benign scenes — the boys playing before their mother’s return, for example — have this air of forlornness to them. Even before she arrives at home you feel this strong sense of loneliness from them, despite the fact that they are constantly together.
Every interaction between mother and sons manages to be either awkward, stiff, and fumbling or downright hostile — or sometimes both. If a scene isn’t tough to watch because of actual disturbing images (which are surprisingly few and far between), it’s tough because you’re witnessing such a sterile, seemingly unfamiliar interaction between family. She treats them like unwanted strangers most of the time, despite their obvious pleas for affection.
As I mentioned, the truly disturbing images and scenes are few and far between — this movie relies more heavily on an implied, psychological type of horror — but the ones that do exist are intense. Even somewhat subtle ones, like when one of the boys tries to peek in on the mother while she’s in the bathroom with her bandages off and she hears the creak of the door and we see her heavily bloodshot eye catch a glimpse of him in a magnifying mirror. Truly chilling. Or the mom standing in front of the full-length mirror with a sheer nightgown on — an image that, on its face, shouldn’t be so disturbing but in the full context of the movie I thought it was brilliant. In another scene, they put a cockroach from their collection onto her face as she sleeps and watch it crawl into her mouth. In one, we see the mother from above, tied to the bed, having recently peed herself, and she’s almost reminiscent of the crucifixion. In another, we only hear a torture scene from the boys’ room, the shot centered around a walkie-talkie on the shelf.
There’s some pretty heavy implications throughout of the mother being severely depressed. Some of the signs are written off as necessary parts of her recovery process, but I definitely got the impression that she was deeply sad — the shades are all drawn, absolute quiet is demanded, no visitors, ordering a year’s worth of frozen pizzas, unexpected snaps of rage, and one scene in particular where she fakes being asleep when one of the twins tried to get her after the doorbell rang, or when she rushes to get her bandages back on upon the twins returning home after playing outside. We, of course, find out why later on, but I thought it was an interesting view on how isolating and confusing depression can be, both for the person suffering from it and those who are close to them.
There were so many great shots where they highlighted the twins’ similarities while also making sure not to make them perfectly symmetrical — them laying with the dead cat, sitting against the tub bleeding from their noses, one of them kneeling at the cross while the other stands.
The tension is high throughout the whole film, but it really ramps up when they start seriously suspecting that their mother is not who she claims to be. Watching their paranoia grow was alarming as they start to train themselves to withstand beatings, carving weapons, and keeping guard one at a time. When they get to the point of actually tying her up and interrogating her, it’s amazing how much you really don’t know WHO you side with. There is evidence mounting on both sides — both of them being overly paranoid and of her actually being a fake somehow — that you just flip flop back and forth the entire time. It makes some of the torture scenes very confusing because, while hard to watch no matter what, there is part of you that feels for these boys — you can feel their loneliness, their betrayal, their deep sadness. And, ultimately, the twins are brilliantly written as they vacillate so quickly between cruelty and sympathy, sometimes even in the same action — they burn her face, but then put antiseptic on it, right before taping her mouth. They superglue her mouth shut (one of the most WTF moments of the whole film), but then cut it open to feed her, all the while begging her to please prove that she’s their mom. It’s desperate in a very raw way.
The ending, beginning with her escaping, is the perfect sort of crescendo of chaos. And the reveal — that Lukas died along with their father in an accident — was SHOCKING, truly. One of those truly great moments in a film where you say “ohhhhHHHH” and so many previous moments snap into place and make sense. It’s an insane talent to be able to put a movie together with that much seamless complexity.
Overall, just awesome. Truly chilling, amazing mood all around, and incredible acting from everyone involved.
Rating: 8/10 | Director: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz | Writer: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz | Cinematography: Martin Gschlacht | Music: Olga Neuwirth | Starring: Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest