I’m a lover of all things thriller and mystery, with a dash of horror thrown in for good measure. That is why I was super excited to check out “Goodnight Mommy,” a 2014 Austrian horror film only now being seen in North America. The trailer alone is chills inducing, reminiscent of the creepy twins in “The Shining” and Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In.” But like with what seems to be the tendency of most trailers these days, the best parts of the film are already shown to the viewer, taking away from the eeriness of the film.
The story is unique and very open-ended. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it is so open-ended that the plot holes frustrated me more than they intrigued me. After a facial surgery for reasons unknown (the viewer is suggested to believe its plastic surgery, I think its more corrective), a mother comes back home to her super stylish, minimalist and isolated house beside a lake and her ten year-old twins Elias and Luke. She ignores Luke and asks Elias to do the same. Why? You’ll soon see. Though it is the middle of summer, the mother orders the twins to keep the blinds closed during the day and allows them to only play together outdoors. Rules from the doctor or something more sinister? Plot hole #1.
The hyperactive twins soon come to suspect that beneath her bandages, their mother may not be the same person. These doubts are seemingly confirmed when they find a picture that shows the mother obviously with a twin sister. As there is the possibility that the woman in the house is actually their aunt, the twins tie the mother to the bed and refuse to let her go until she tells them where their real mother is. The woman refuses to answer them, and the twins finally seal her mouth with tape to keep her from screaming for help. What follows is essentially Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” without knowledge of the truth. Are the boys right in that who returned from the hospital post-surgery is not their mother? Or are they so caught up in their summer vacation where overactive imaginations are fostered and they are allowed to do what they want while their mother heals? Plot holes 2-13.
The boys are the epitome of active kids. They’re often depicted as engaging in some kind of activity, from running to swimming to investigating the forests in their backyard. But acccompanying this depiction of otherwise typical child behaviour is always a more sinister evocation of tone and mood provided by directors, and writers, Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The boys jump crazily upon a trampoline in the pouring rain. They throw chunks of hail at one another during a storm and are unaffected when discovering a hidden charnel house full of bones, instead focusing on the cat they find. This cat figures prominently into the plot of the film both symbolically and literally as the scenes unfold.
What I hoped would climax in a supernatural, shocking twist, the film instead falls victim to modern culture’s propensity for torture porn and excessive violence instead of character development. I totally understand that things don’t need to be clearly explained and that inference is as important as furthering a plot, but Goodnight Mommy was so vague with its explanations of events that I soon grew frustrated in my attempts to understand the directors’ intent and purposes.
As every film reviewer does, they go online to see what other people thought of the film. There are many strange, compelling theories floating around Reddit, some of which I tried to apply to get a better feel for the movie but there wasn’t much luck. The film is indeed eerie with its stylistic representations of a house that seems to be completely separate from other people. There are only a few other characters introduced in the plot, but their depictions are strictly presenting a service or self-serving goal. No other people seem to check in on how the boys are doing, or how the mother is healing. With bandages completely covering one’s fact, one would think that a follow-up appointment would be necessary.
There are anomalies to this isolation. The Mommy has a telephone call with an unidentified individual where she is obviously bothered but this phone call reveals that she is a semi-famous person. The artwork in the home is also very telling in terms of the psyche of the people who live there. The gauzy, shadowy portraits that litter the home are purposely unclear in who is being depicted. These details all allude to a cold, detached tone where nothing and everything is as it seems.
The film is beautifully shot, don’t get me wrong. The directors use of 35mm film gives the film a certain depth and panorama that makes the images very all-encompassing and intimidating. But Goodnight Mommy is nothing more than a commentary on our society’s focus on aesthetics and surfaces without really commenting. It’s shiny and nice and cool, but the film is more like an ad for Ikea than a revelatory critique on the modern world. Don’t be fooled by the trailer – the only spooks and thrills you’ll get out of the film is if you’re into seeing someone get their mouth superglued shut. A major disappointment.