Goodnight Mommy appears to be one thing and eventually reveals itself to be something else entirely, and that makes it a very difficult movie to discuss without spoiling the experience for new viewers. Writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz have created a sphinx of a film that unfolds in a quiet, deliberate manner, a journey whose every next step defies expectation.
The Austrian film stars Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz as twin brothers Elias and Lukas, who have recently returned home to live with their mother after a mysterious accident tore their family apart. The mother (Susanne Wuest) is heavily bandaged after cosmetic surgery, offering a ghoulish mask that Elias and Lukas shrink from at first glance, and her behavior is as changed as her face. Gone is the warm, maternal woman who once wrapped her boys in her arms and sang to them, and here is a chilly specter haunting the shadows of their reclusive country house, scolding Elias and Lukas for every word and deed. The boys begin to wonder if this is even truly the mother they once adored, or if she's been replaced by some sort of matriarchal changeling.
At least Lukas and Elias have each other, right? The boys - real life twins giving an astonishingly sophisticated performance considering Goodnight Mommy is their first credit - are thick as thieves, whispering to each other when their mother's back is turned, sharing baths and meals and toys and clothes, running wild over the expansive property surrounding their home. They swim, they tend to their hissing cockroach collection (boys), they frolic in a hail storm with the disregard for mess and discomfort that only pre-teen boys possess. Their bond is striking - intimidating, actually. Though their mother often acts in a way that challenges all reason, we are forced to sympathize with her. Elias and Lukas only outnumber her two to one, but at times they seem to take up much more space than is strictly necessary for two small boys. They use up all the air and energy in the room, leaving Mama to cower quietly alone.
Few films craft an atmosphere of suspense as deftly as Goodnight Mommy. This movie will make you extraordinarily nervous. The quiet dread of the opening moments - chilly and beautiful, as Elias and Lukas play their inscrutable games in the front yard - deepens, sharpens, until Goodnight Mommy becomes almost unbearably brutal.
Much of this dread is a result of the action that is unraveling onscreen, but credit must be given to the drum-tight editing by Michael Palm, to the thoughtful, particular sound design, to the crisp, elegant cinematography by Martin Gschlacht. Though this should be true of all movies, Goodnight Mommy stands apart in its meticulous attention to every detail, resulting in a tapestry that will strike you with its beauty and fill you with unshakable dismay all at once.