Directed by Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala (2014)
What “The Babadook” lacked for raw horror, “Goodnight Mommy” (originally titled “Ich Seh, Ich Seh” in its native Austria, which much more presciently means “I See, I See”) delivers in psychologically head-spinning spades. This is not only the most unsettling film I’ve seen in some time, it’s also one of the best – and I truly wasn’t prepared how mesmerizingly good it’d be. (It was an at-whim choice of mine at the 2015 San Francisco Film Festival earlier this year, mostly because the time was convenient – now it’s out in general release).
This is pure Michael Haneke territory here – glossed-out close-ups, beautiful film stock, and gorgeous little children full of malice and hate. Two twin boys, Lukas and Elias, live an idyllic, playful life in the Austrian countryside with no father and a mother who’s just returned from an stressful operation (plastic surgery?) that’s left her face fully and morbidly covered in bandages. She instructs the boys to leave her in peace for several weeks while she sleeps and recovers, but her demeanor strikes them as “off”, leading them to believe that she might not actually be their mother. Scared, and perhaps a little bored, they decide to test this theory, and when she instructs Elias to ignore & stop talking about/with Lukas, and furthermore stops feeding Lukas as well, the boys design a series of incremental tortures to get her to admit that she’s an imposter.
The sense of dread and terror builds slowly, quietly, and often imperceptibly. The boys shift along a rapidly escalating curve from little unsmiling cherubs to little unsmiling sociopaths. Their mother, believing that she still has control over them - and who obviously harbors a weary and learned resignation to some of their flights of fancy - allows herself through her own inability to communicate to move from a position of power to one of absolute powerlessness. She continues along this descent to things even worse.
The film’s power lies in what is not said, in the words that could have averted this showdown, and in what’s ultimately revealed at the end to have driven much of this behavior. It may not be a friggin’ mindblower, but I still sat slack-jawed at the end, trying to process what I’d just been through.
Moreover, cockroaches and superglue become instruments of torture, and they’re not fun to watch in the least – but Frankz & Fiala render them in such a preternaturally creepy manner with lovely Euro-film pristineness that I admired virtually every frame of the film, even that terrifying ones. While most certainly not for the easily disturbed, “Goodnight Mommy” made for a quite threatening and edifyingly cineastic afternoon at the movies.