Humans seem to possess an innate aversion to change. As adults, we understand we must fight stagnation, but children rely on routine and the familiar for comfort and learning. To a child, even the most subtle shifts or recontextualization can become a source of terror, particularly when they threaten said child’s sense of safety.
In Goodnight Mommy, Elias and Lukas (played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz), twin sons of an Austrian television personality (Susanne Wuest), find themselves confronting such terror when their mother returns home to recover from cosmetic surgery. Mummy’s frightening appearance–eyes bloodshot, face covered in bandages, nose braced by a splint–worries them enough. More disconcerting are the changes in her personality–especially her refusal to interact with, or even speak to, Lukas, and her insistence that Elias do likewise. The boys come to the terrible conclusion that the woman who came home from hospital is not their mother.
Under ordinary circumstances such a synopsis might indicate an ordinary thriller with a somewhat obvious twist, but writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala present a convincing case from Elias and Lukas’s point of view. In retrospect, the filmmakers dropped plenty of hints I should have picked up on, but I was so firmly on the boys’ side I didn’t even think to consider alternatives; the reveal left me genuinely surprised.
Using clever editing and cinematography, strong atmosphere, and a disquieting ambient score (one of the best of the year) from Olga Neuwirth, Franz and Fiala create an environment that should provide safety and comfort, but gradually generates unease until madness becomes the only logical response. Then they pull the rug out and things become intense. Violence is the inevitable result of everything that has come before, and the film earns its shocking conclusion.
Its character-centric focus requires Goodnight Mommy to rely more on its performances than other horror-thrillers; the filmmakers have a tougher row to hoe in this regard, as they tell from the childrens’ point of view. The Schwarz brothers are the hinge upon which the film moves–if we don’t accept Elias and Lukas, everything collapses. They succeed admirably, turning in two of the best young-actor performances of the year (second only, perhaps, to Jacob Tremblay in Room).
One of the best films of the year, Goodnight Mommy transcends the banalities of its basic set-up and becomes one of those rarest of horror films, one that finds a primal pressure-point in the unevolved subconscious and knows when to press its finger down. I can think of no higher praise.