Usually if a movie trailer depicts a movie a certain way and the actual film is completely different, I get annoyed. Why are you marketing it in a way that doesn’t actually do it justice? Just to make people want to see it? It smacks of desperation and comes across as a cheap ploy. However, in the case of the Austrian film Goodnight Mommy, the trailer does exactly what it needs to do by showing us things to make us terrified of one aspect, when we should be terrified about another aspect as well. To say it unnerved me is an understatement.
Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, Goodnight Mommy is a wholly disturbing experience, and one that, like many Euro-horror films, is predicated on perception, tone, and tension — all of which I think are close to flawless. They do a wonderful job of setting things up to be one way but changing things around by the end until you’re disoriented, making the impact of the narrative is even greater as a result. In the tradition of movies like last year’s The Babadook, you’re never sure if you should be afraid of the mother or the children. Perhaps both, maybe neither.
The film stars a pair of identical twins, Lukas and Elias Schwarz, who play characters with their same names. They are living in their mother’s house in a heavily wooded area. We learn that their parents are divorced and they spend most of their time with their father. Their mother (Susanne Wuest) is a television personality of some note. She returns home after undergoing some kind of facial reconstructive surgery and looks rather frightening with her bandages, head-wrapping, and bruised and bloodshot eyes. She’s also a very wispy woman who usually wears formless flowing dresses, which doesn’t help her to look any less weird. While she at first seems normal, she quickly starts acting very strange, flying off the handle, only feeding one of the boys, and spending much of her time asleep in her room, or just avoiding them. The twins start believing she isn’t their mother; so then who is she?
There’s a point in Goodnight Mommy where the perception of what we’re seeing changes, and what we think we’ve been watching isn’t exactly what we’ve been seeing. It’s a change that, if you’re paying close attention, you should be able to see coming, but that revelation doesn’t change the fear level. In fact, the movie becomes much more disturbing, in a Michael Haneke kind of way, once the turn happens. It’s about the mind of a child and how easily confused it can be, seeing things not as they are, but as they perceive them. It’s fitting that the German title of the film, Ich Seh, Ich Seh, translates to “I See, I See,” since seeing is exactly where the trouble lies.
Goodnight Mommy probably won’t satisfy every fan expecting exactly what the trailer suggests, but it’s a much deeper, far more troubling movie than that. It’s very hard to talk about a movie such as this without giving away too much, but it’s a movie that needs to be seen and experience for oneself. Then you’ll probably want to call your mom, but be afraid to do so.
Goodnight Mommy is in theaters on September 11. Share you thoughts with us in the comments below!
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Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!