Goodnight Mommy (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Goodnight Mommy (2015)

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Elias and Lukas worry about their mommy.  Since the accident she's holed up in her bedroom, lashing out at the two when they're the slightest bit out of line, and peers back at them through blood-soaked bandages.  Mommy isn't who she used to be, and is she still mommy under those rags?  Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala co-wrote and directed Goodnight Mommy and stars Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, and Lukas Schwarz.

Bloodshot beyond measureGoodnight Mommy has two different flavors of horror.  The first, fueling the effective first half, is a case-study in grief management between mother and child.  If this sounds familiar to the lingering terror of The Babadook, you wouldn't be far off.  The terrain of Goodnight Mommy is shifting from the first frame on, eliciting our protective instincts and immediate unease as two children play over a bubbling pile of quicksand before going to a desolate corn field in hand-crafted hunting masks.

This part of Goodnight Mommy showed promise - so much promise that the sudden shift into the extreme and violent territory is less a terrifying twist and more a disappointing detour.  Co-directors and screenwriters Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala hit many of the images which have become standard in this kind of torture horror.  There's bondage, unique applications of common tools to cause pain, a sort of love / hate relationship between tormentor and captive.  All playing out in a scenario which seems like a Madlibs version of torture horror, so instead of sadistic European we have a mom at the end of her rope or children in the midst of identity-shattering trauma.

The kids do an ok job, but aren't asked to do much more than a Village of the Damned routine while Wuest handles the heavy-load of acting.

The kids do an ok job, but aren't asked to do much more than a Village of the Damned routine while Wuest handles the heavy-load of acting.

Again, all potentially enlightening stuff, but there's a certain inevitability to Goodnight Mommy which is less the result of mounting terror and more a genre switch.  The early images present an emotional landscape riddled with traps where the land could give way and swallow the participants at any time.  But the transition to the later images is one of over-explained psychological horror, where those primal forces which conspired to destroy our characters in the beginning are really at the whims of whoever the camera happens to be following at that moment.  Both sets of horror have their strong points, but the total of Goodnight Mommy is less than its positives.

But what disappointment I feel is because of Franz and Fiala's stunning first two acts of Goodnight Mommy.  They have a way of framing the environment around the children, Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz) which engenders our protective instincts.  This is why those opening scenes stick with me the most, they only have a vague grasp of the images they utilize in their jagged masks and little ability to understand the danger they're in when the barely connected tissue of the quicksand holds together as they jump on the floating chunks.  The loose grasp of their own predicament bleeds into their understanding of adult matters as mommy (Susanne Wuest) transforms in their eyes into a sort of Phantom of the Country House.

I liked this aspect of Goodnight Mommy as well, since the mother's identity crisis is made literal through the eyes of her children.  Mommy's eye is peeking around many corners, either through her bandages, the bloodshot reflection of the mirrors all throughout the home, or when she goes on late night walks into the woods the children have claimed as their own.  There's a fascinating and overtly Oedipal battle with the mother trying to reclaim her sexual identity in spite of her disfigurement and violently repels against defining herself as a mother.  One moment has mommy stripping naked in the woods, her bare body standing strong against the firm ridges of the trees, only to have the camera circle around and see her face in an insane blur.  The children understand she is treading into their territory, but at the cusp of adolescence don't entirely know what that means, and mommy's reawakened sexual spirit confuses and frightens them.

All well and good up until this point, and I'd be doing her a disservice if I didn't tell you just how damn good Wuest is in the role of mommy.  The last few years have seen a number of stellar performances by women in complex horror roles, and Wuest's work in Goodnight Mommy deserves to stand alongside Sheri Moon Zombie in The Lords of Salem and Essie Davis in The Babadook.  A game of "Guess who" early in Goodnight Mommy is a masterclass in controlled emotional shifts as Wuest goes from tentatively playful to frustrated and finally enraged as she realizes her very identity is the subject of fun for her children.  It's the frustration in those moments where Goodnight Mommy really shines, and one painful scene of mommy trying out internet dating for the first time is so painful and exposed that it could have been a short film all on its own.

One great touch in the cinematography of Goodnight Mommy is how the frame is constantly cutting into or dissecting mommy. Long after her accident she's still in pieces over how to get on with her life.

One great touch in the cinematography of Goodnight Mommy is how the frame is constantly cutting into or dissecting mommy. Long after her accident she's still in pieces over how to get on with her life.

My disappointment comes in the way the various psychological and dread-building visions come together in a surprisingly by-the-numbers violent climax.  All the unique tension and buried sexual frustrations aren't even released in violence which plays with those ideas.  Overall, yes, the last act is a continuation of the way the children are playing with elements they do not understand, but even their execution is mannered in a way which goes beyond their years.  I don't expect complex machinations, but that the violence in some way builds on the tensions built up before the bloodshed.  Then there is that vexing final shot which, if we are to take the world of Goodnight Mommy at face value, means that the previous ninety minutes or so of struggle and violent identity formation means nothing in the end.

I can't even say that as a statement of nihilism, because the last shot shows a future which spells out goodness no matter the violence which came before.  Really, once the violence began, there was little way Goodnight Mommy was going to satisfy me by the time the credits rolled.  Franz and Fiala are gifted film makers who crafted a complex and tense web before it unraveled.  Once they make a story which can land as uneasily as it takes off I'll count myself in as a fan.  Until then, Goodnight Mommy is best watched for the potential and less the delivery.

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Tail - Goodnight MommyGoodnight Mommy (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.
Starring Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, and Lukas Schwarz.

Posted by Andrew

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