Goodnight Mommy is uneven, and in this case that’s a good thing. The movie is a long stretch of quiet, bucolic landscapes and indoor-voice family squabbles, punctuated by a hard left turn into ultraviolence. The transition from psychological to physical horror is so abrupt, the shock of its mere existence is stronger than anything generated by its specific tortures. (And those tortures are inventive and primally terrible—my entire theater audibly clenched when the tube of Krazy Glue appeared.) To make things worse, the tension isn’t a gradual build to the climax, as the playbook for these nothing-is-as-it-seems horror movies would dictate. The weirdness comes in spikes and troughs, irregular enough to keep you in a constant state of discomfort rather than letting you just go along for the ride.
Goodnight Mommy, Austria’s entry for this year’s foreign-language Oscar, begins with a family at what ought to be its lowest. A mother, wrapped in bandages covering all but her mouth and eyes, moves her 10-year-old twin boys from the big city to a countryside retreat to begin rebuilding their lives. We aren’t told what they’re leaving behind, though the film gradually doles out references to her “operation,” then to an accident and a separation from the boys’ father. The boys, clearly having trouble coping with this new life, come to believe that something’s off about their mother. She demands silence now, and darkness inside the house. She is uncharacteristically short with the boys, ignoring one and striking the other. They get it in their heads that she may be an impostor, and their quest to determine the truth leads to a truth that none of the three are capable of facing.
Writers/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala know their horror tropes and aren’t afraid to use them. Twins —with their shared language and secrets— are inherently ominous, and this movie is full of shots of the two staring at each other wordlessly. (Elias and Lukas Schwarz, playing the boys, are effectively unsettling.) There are cockroaches. On more than one occasion, the movie sends the boys running through cornfields, for no apparent reason outside of it being creepy. In fact, the contrast of the family’s ultramodern vacation home —starkly decorated with modern art and washed-out lighting— against its lush surroundings adds to the eeriness of the film. There’s no need to pander to the creaks and bumps-in-the-night isolation of a rural farmhouse to shelter this family’s horrors; it’s all so normal, serene, and outright pedestrian. Nothing bad could happen here, it says. But if it did there’d be no one here to save you.
That sort of visual symbolism is laid on thick: Recurring shots of eyes, masks, and venetian blinds serve as constant reminders that some new horror might be hiding just out of view (or maybe right in plain sight). It’s all a little on-the-nose, to be honest. One that works though, is the omnipresence of crucifixes, if only because they foreshadow the Inquisition-like interrogation, with all its futility, that closes the movie. You’ll learn that there are no supernatural horrors to be found here, nor any intervention or mercy to be found when its characters need them the most.
Again, this movie isn’t scary. It’s unsettling, and disturbing, and deeply sad, but it isn’t interested in making you jump or hide your eyes as much as it wants you to have trouble gaining your footing. You watch the story unfolod through the eyes of the twin boys, and they are queasily unreliable narrators. Physically and emotionally apart from the world after their family was upended, their mother is their world—and now they’re no longer sure of even her. Nothing she does is so obviously malignant—save a pair of shock scenes that are, seemingly, written off as dream sequences—to confirm the boys’ suspicions. They’re easily influenced by each other, as children with wild imaginations often are, but as the closest thing this movie has to protagonists, you have no choice but to share their mistrust. The filmmakers do a heck of a job sowing just enough doubts for you to never quite know whose side you should be on. The result is a film that, for 90 percent of its running time, has you perpetually and painfully unsure. It’s a vertiginous experience that isn’t lessened by its twist ending.
Yes, there’s a major twist that completely recolors everything that came before it. No, your viewing experience won’t dramatically suffer by knowing it before you go in—and the movie itself telegraphs the twist heavily, maybe even a little heavier than I would have liked. It’s an accomplishment that Goodnight Mommy’s shock ending makes more sense, and feels more earned, than the presumed resolution it was setting you up for.
After the twist is revealed, everything leading up to it now belongs to a different movie. What was melancholy is heartbreaking. (“Please prove it’s you,” one boy tearfully tells his mother, as desperate for her to do it as she is to be capable of proving it.) The cruelty is crueler knowing the participants and their motives. The film is no longer horror, but outright tragedy, and generates real sympathy for everyone involved—even the one putting the Krazy Glue where it should never, ever go.