Squirming just below the surface of Goodnight Mommy, a nerve-shredding new thriller from far-flung Austria, is an almost comically predictable plot twist. Moviegoers hip to the true identities of Tyler Durden and Keyser Söze should figure it out by the end of the first reel, when the filmmakers have already begun to show their hand. But you don’t go to a midnight movie to have your mind blown. You go to have your stomach churned, your hairs put on end, your fingers forced over your eyes. And by that base criteria, this elegantly nasty little potboiler should satisfy those brave enough to brave it. They might see the big reveal coming, but that won’t help them unsee the horrors leading up to it.
Nearly all of the film takes place in a secluded country house, surrounded by an idyllic forest and vast cornfields, perfect for frolicking and fleeing. This is the new home of 9-year-old twins Elias (Elias Schwarz) and Lukas (Lukas Schwarz), as well as their mother (Susanne Wuest), an anchorwoman who’s just undergone cosmetic surgery. To these troublemaking boys, there’s something not quite right about Mommy: Beyond her strange, frightening appearance—a pair of bloodshot eyes peeping out from behind a mask of bandages—she just seems different. For one thing, she’ll barely acknowledge Lukas’ existence, addressing only Elias and providing the boys with a single dinner, one set of clothes in the morning, etc. Soon, the brothers begin to wonder if it’s someone else entirely under all that gauze—if, in fact, their mother has been replaced by a malevolent imposter.
Startlingly confident for a first feature, the film surely benefits from the experience of its producer, Ulrich Seidl, an Austrian director who specializes in punishing studies of human despair, including his recent Paradise trilogy. But Goodnight Mommy is punishing in a much more visceral, genre-friendly way. Writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala lure you in with the dark, fairy-tale whimsy of their setup—enhanced by the bucolic beauty of the rural backdrop, captured on 35mm—only to bring the steel jaws of the bear trap down, as the tension between mother and sons escalates beyond mere mischief. The movie seems engineered to exploit phobias, from a common aversion to creepy crawlies—note the early appearance of a terrarium full of hissing insects, this film’s equivalent of a Chekhovian gun—to a general sensitivity about the mouth, a vulnerable orifice that Franz and Fiala treat with all the gentle care of a sadistic dentist.
Goodnight Mommy, in other words, gets exceptionally brutal, and not in the easy-to-shrug-off manner of a pedestrian splatter flick. The film’s final act is a true endurance test, for audience and characters alike; even seasoned aficionados of extreme cinema may find their boundaries tested, in no small part because this harsh material—the kind for which the term “torture porn” was coined—has been fiendishly filtered through a traditional family dynamic, mining a mother-son bond for pure nightmare fuel. Goodnight Mommy plays on the nerves with expert cruelty—so much so, actually, that by the time the film belatedly comes clean about the plot secret everyone has already guessed, you’re too pummeled into submission to care. No, the twist isn’t shocking. But the movie around it sure as hell is.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit Goodnight Mommy’s spoiler space.