Remaking successful international productions, particularly European ones, is a tried and true Hollywood tradition. In most cases we end up with a rehash that loses whatever edge the original had; in the process of trying to make it more palatable for American audiences, something almost always gets lost—particularly with thrillers and satires. From Diabolique and Vanilla Sky in the 1990s to the recent Downhill (2020), a remake of the Swedish satire Force Majeure (2014), the list goes on. Later this year, Tom Hanks takes on the lead role in A Man Called Otto, a remake of another Swedish film, A Man Called Ove (2015). This week’s entry is Goodnight Mommy, based on the Austrian arthouse hit from 2014 of the same title, written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. This version is written by Kyle Warren and directed by Matt Sobel.
The setup has the marks of gothic horror. Tween twin brothers (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) are dropped off by their father at a country home to stay with their mother (Naomi Watts). But all is not well. Her face is covered in bandages. She avoids spending time with them. In whatever little time she spends with them, she’s belligerent, yells at them to behave, and, most egregiously, refuses to sing them a bedtime lullaby. The brothers, who are very close, begin to suspect that she’s an imposter who may have taken their mother’s place.
The story takes place mostly in that big manor house. The boys run around being mischievous as their mother hides her face and acts in ways they find disturbing. Even when she dances in front of the mirror, Watts is shot and lighted to look eerie. At first, the audience watches her from the boys’ point of view, suspecting every little gesture. But the film’s point of view shifts to present her side. For a confined thriller like this to work, tension must build steadily to the big crescendoes. Unfortunately, Warren and Sobel undercut that by throwing obvious clues about the big reveal along the way. Despite loud, ominous music and camerawork that always seems to be searching for clues, thrills are few and far between.
The original Austrian film had shock value and genuine, gruesome horror. This new Americanized version sands the edges off of the narrative every chance it gets. The three main characters are more sympathetically drawn, which hurts the suspense between them. The audience’s allegiance is supposed to see-saw between the two sides, but in this version, neither side goes to the extreme and the result is a lack of audience investment. When not inviting shrugs, the film’s histrionics elicit laughs when they should be genuinely horrific. Something’s off. A story about a mother and her children who increasingly do horrible things to each other should be frightful. Instead, it’s ludicrous. The film never comes alive.
The Crovettis also play the twins too sympathetically to be genuinely frightening. In fact, they were more alarming in their previous roles as Nicole Kidman’s sons on HBO’s Big Little Lies. Watts is committed and appropriately intense. She spends half the film hidden behind a mask relying on her voice and physicality to convey what this woman is feeling. Unfortunately, her efforts do not save the film. She’s stranded and adrift, a good performance undercut by a less-than-worthy film.
For an actor with her considerable talent and some clout in the industry, Watts continues to make puzzling choices. Another remake of a European art film after Funny Games (2007)? Another thriller where she plays a mother after The Desperate Hour (2021)? Another horror film about a woman in peril set mostly in one location after The Wolf Hour (2019)? Even among the very few who saw these films, they all quickly faded away from memory. It seems like she’s repeating the misses of her career instead of the hits.
The original film became a sensation by depicting children doing awfully gruesome stuff. It’s understandable to want to remake it, but why remove the elements that made it unique? With Goodnight Mommy, add another miss—not just to Watts’ filmography, but to the growing catalogue of U.S. remakes that are far inferior to their predecessors.