To an extent, Severin Fialo and Veronika Franz’s Goodnight Mommy takes the audience for a fool for its first hour or so. When we meet the mother (Susanne Wuest) of Lukas and Elias (Lukas and Elias Schwarz), pre-adolescent twin boys living in the Austrian countryside, her face is covered in gauze and bandages, the aftermath of extensive cosmetic surgery. Through footage of her work as a model and television personality, to say nothing of her general air of self-entitlement and her high-stakes divorce from the father of her children, the sense is that the surgery was to eliminate signs of aging or negligible blemishes. On top of that, the measured, tidy aesthetic matches the mother’s speculative need to perfect her visage. And yet, a critique of the corrosive effects of a preoccupation with veneers isn’t exactly what lies at the heart of this inarguably unsettling yet rigid and unambitious work of psychological horror.
The compositional touch of producer Ulrich Seidl is evident throughout, but Goodnight Mommy owes much more to Michael Haneke. The film revolves around the brothers’ belief that the person behind all the dressing isn’t their mother, but an imposter. That she compulsively acts rough and abusive with her boys, for seemingly the first time in her life, doesn’t help her case when she removes the dressing and must convince the boys that she’s actually their mother. The filmmakers cleverly offer an ambiguous state of warfare between the twins and the mother, where it seems utterly plausible that someone could have come into this minor celebrity’s home and taken over her life. At one point, the increasingly panicked mother must explain why she got a beauty mark removed, only to replace it with a fake one.
In the third act, the film devolves into an extremely unsettling series of sadistic tortures, the kind of stuff that would appeal largely to fans of Funny Games. The underpinnings of the story would seemingly be bloody retribution by abused, anxious children against an older generation infatuated with class and appearance, but the script’s final twist abandons symbolism for a familiar psychological-thriller trope. Even before that, the film indulges an overtly suspenseful sequence in which the twins must ensure that two elderly Red Cross charity workers don’t discover their mother upstairs. The pair leaves after Lukas and Elias offer a large donation to them, which points to a tendency in people to ignore their curiosity and suspicion for fiscal stability. Like most of the political and sociological appraisals in Goodnight Mommy, however, these fascinating moments are smothered out in preference of stressing the filmmakers’ admittedly razor-sharp genre signifiers. Fialo and Franz only finally subvert the viewer’s perspective at the very end of the film, which speaks to a goal of crafting a formidable, atmospheric, and surprising work of genre, rather than attempting to transcend such molds.