By Andrew Buckner
Rating: ****1/2 out of *****.
The Austrian chiller Goodnight Mommy (originally titled Ich seh, Ich she) gets its unsettling power from being such a voyeuristic, distant and cold experience.
Furthermore, it garners its stalwart nature from being almost alarmingly quiet throughout the bulk of its runtime. Because of this there are long stretches where only brief bits of dialogue or natural sounds crackle through the soundtrack.
This assists in creating a maturely fashioned, psychological portrait. It grips us more for the way it teases us with where the story could be headed, especially in its first seventy minutes, than filling us with outright trepidation.
Such is most evident in the final act. This portion could’ve easily become overblown. Instead it respects the foundation it delicately constructs in prior sequences. The result is a theatrical homerun.
Most endeavors meant to produce dread would use this delightfully realized sense of isolation to give us low-brow jump scares. This would be especially likely as we stare into the shadows, as this work often does, convincing ourselves something will pop out.
Olga Neuwirth’s score is used sparingly and precisely at the right instant. The music she creates is striking, atmospheric and memorable.
But, Goodnight Mommy gets under our skin because it forces us to think. It makes us contemplate what is beneath this darkness. This is opposed to using this circumstance, as is often the case, as surface dressing for novelty shocks.
This is far more satisfying, in relation to the on-screen personalities and the general chronicle, and discomforting than any cheap effect the filmmakers can throw at us.
Such is done with unproblematic confidence throughout. The movie is worthy of recommendation based on this factor alone.
What makes this aforementioned statement even more verified is that the composition is brilliantly written and directed. This is done with impeccable restraint, construction and command of form by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz throughout its one hundred minutes.
In turn, the proceedings are the definition of a slow burn thriller. It delights in the way it toys with audience expectations.
In one of the wisest moves this highly-literate nail-biter elucidates is that it successfully makes all three of the main personages appear villainous at various intervals.
It has a sharp sense of individual perspective. These transitions in viewpoint appear natural and seamless.
For instance, we see the heavily bandaged mother (Susanne Wuest in a compulsively watchable performance that captures her dreadful and vulnerable turns terrifically) through the eyes of her twin children, Lukas and Elias (both portrayed with creepy precision by real life brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz), as a monster.
So when the boys begin to believe that there is someone else behind the bandages covering their mother’s face we believe them. In the end, this is one of the most disturbing acts this bit of gritty cinema commits.
Another great move is that this entry in fear is wisely vague with backstory. It hardly gives us any details from the main characters’ past.
This makes it easier to look past the red herrings, seen in hindsight, and its more transparent bits. Such is so because of the intelligent way it hides otherwise important elements such as this for sheer impact.
In so doing a wall is built up against our ability to find an antagonist. This evokes further restlessness and captivation as we are at war with ourselves for over 2/3 of the exertion. Even when the question is resolved we admire how well the truth was concealed.
Many will be off put by the gradual pace. Admittedly, I left the piece feeling that I appreciated how terrifically well-made it all was as opposed to being instantly captivated or enthralled. It was only when I found myself mulling it over that I realized the effectiveness at hand.
Those of us willing to tap into its distinct rhythm will be largely fascinated. But, immediate amusement is not the focus here.
Goodnight Mommy is a terror production, made all the more cinematic from being shot on 35 millimeter film, from the old-school. It wants to turn your blood to ice by making us wonder.
The intention here is to haunt us, not by excessive gore or endless violence (though this work does have its moments), but by forcing us to turn its chain of events over repeatedly in our head long after it has finished.
It accomplishes this spectacularly. This is true even if it has a sadly predictable, after a certain late third act plot-point comes into play, conclusion.
Besides perfectly honed performances by its convincingly painted leads the composition benefits from gloriously bleak cinematography by Martin Gschlacht. An early scene with Lukas and Elias in a cornfield showcases this, as well as the earthy realism the picture constantly elicits, beautifully.
Furthermore, Michael Palm’s editing is proficient and wonderfully done. The costume design by Tanja Hausner helps give our leads an everyday air.
Such contributing details makes what we are seeing all the more believable and realistic. Given that this is an attribute Fiala and Franz are obviously striving for these technical triumphs are all the more vital.
This is most evident in the plain-spoken dialogue. It doesn’t feel the need to force feed its audience answers through exposition as many modern offerings are apt to do. Because of this the effort strikes a continuously heightened sense of unease and credibility.
Goodnight Mommy is being heralded as one of the best features of its kind for the year. Though it doesn’t have the invention of David Robert Mictchell’s 80’s style take on the genre and only visible competition, It Follows, this claim is certainly valid.
It has various similarities to Jennifer Kent’s 2014’s masterpiece The Babadook. This is especially apparent in style, theme and general story arc. Still, this affair isn’t quite as remarkable overall.
Moreover, the presentation has a theme of spontaneously having a loved one replaced that is highly reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Yet, what makes it work so well is that it stays true to the tradition of the most accomplished horror films. It does this by being a drama, a character study at heart.
These all assist in the quality of this endeavor. Still, it leaves a lingering impression after all the pieces fall into place that we have seen it all assembled far more successfully beforehand. Alfred Hitchcock’s controversial 1960 ground-breaker, Psycho, comes immediately to mind.
If you are a member of the group who likes rugged fright, the type that makes you feel as if you are a helpless witness to the proceedings, you will love this exertion. If you like motion pictures where everything is explained at every turn you may want to look elsewhere.
Fiala and Franz’s feature is harrowing but certainly not for everyone.