Goodnight Mommy aka Ich seh, Ich seh (2015)
Dir. and written by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala
Starring Susanne Wuest, Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz
NOTE: There’s not really any way to meaningfully discuss this movie without revealing more than is good for you. As usual, I’m going to go as light on details as possible, but you’ll still probably infer more than you want to know. If you want the best possible experience here, avoid this review (or any review*) til you’ve seen it.
GOODNIGHT MOMMY is quintessential Austrian horror, which is to say it’s impeccably made, sublimely acted, self-consciously arty, utterly gripping, unflinchingly sadistic, and also maybe just a tad less interesting than it thinks it is.
It’s also a hard movie to review, because it wants to you think it’s something it’s obviously not for most of the runtime. On the surface, it’s about two twins (Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz) who suspect the woman who has recently come back from the hospital with a face wrapped in bandages (Susanne Wuest) is not their real mother. It’s not really about that, but it’s so committed to fooling you as to what it’s actually about that the trailer itself is intentionally misleading -- it has several edits which suggest that something is going to happen in the movie, which is not going to happen in the movie. Remember how the trailer for THE GRAY showed (Spoiler for THE GRAY) Liam Neeson punching that Wolf, which is literally the last shot of the movie? Well, imagine how pissed you’d have been if you went and saw it and realized that actually that doesn’t even happen, those are two separate shots from different points in the movie edited to make it look like they’re together. The trailer for GOODNIGHT MOMMY does exactly that.
This is even more baffling, because to the extent that the movie has a twist, it’s a twist that I, and everyone I know who has seen this, guessed correctly literally seconds into the movie. There’s an opening shot which is pretty blatantly symbolic for what you’re about to see, but the movie doesn’t acknowledge it openly for well over half the runtime. This is not actually as big a problem as you might think, since I think the tension actually works better and on a different level if you’re pretty sure you know the trick is the movie is pulling, but still… it’s a long time to spend establishing what is essentially a long, elaborate fake-out followed by a completely different second half. There’s even a subtle shift in perspective, which gives the post-twist movie an entirely different flavor --and to some degree even style-- than the pre-twist.
Fortunately, both halves are full of resolutely strong filmmaking. Writer-directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala (mostly known for shorts and documentaries, though Franz co-wrote the 2001 Ulrich Seidl film DOG DAYS; Seidl returned the favor by producing here) masterfully craft images of coldly austere dread, and manage the impressive task of keeping a glacial pace married to a unbearably coiled tension through every second of runtime. It’s arresting, confident filmmaking, and it’s never less than absolutely riveting. And that’s actually kind of unexpected: For a self-consciously arty, punishingly brutal, gleefully languid, single-location movie choked with visual metaphor --and an Austrian film at that!-- GOODNIGHT, MOMMY is surprisingly interested in entertaining. It uses those tools in the interest of being a top-notch thriller, not in punishing you for wanting to see a top-notch thriller, which is a rare thing in German-language cinema and also rare for a film this technically accomplished. The cinematography, editing, and score are mostly unflashy --though certain shots are unmistakably lovely to look at-- but together work wonders to weave an oppressive layer of paranoid dread over each frame, and the acting by all three stars (who are the only people on-screen for probably 95% of the movie) is superb. Wuest has the hardest role to pull off and makes a very tricky transition between the movie’s two poles seem seamless and believable, but even so it’s hard not to be blown away by just how great the young twins are. They carry the movie, appearing in virtually every scene and handling the objectively silly, somewhat clichéd twist with a sensitivity and nuance which really sells it in a way it probably doesn’t even really deserve.
About that: here’s the problem. This is a finely made, absolutely engrossing little thriller, but I can’t help but feel a little conflicted about how seriously it takes itself given how ultimately ridiculous it is. When you get down to it, the “twist” is downright trite, and considering how brutal and nihilistic the end gets, I’m not sure that level of cruelty is really justified by the story, no matter how well made. Not that a movie needs to “justify” itself, but in some ways GOODNIGHT MOMMY seems to make the classic juggalo mistake of believing it can substitute grimness for depth. It’s surely upsetting, and you’ll likely walk away from it a little rattled, which speaks to the exceedingly high quality of its execution. That ain’t nothing, but it’s also an experience which can’t help but feel a little superficial in retrospect.
Of course, it’s not like most of these Chainsawnukah movies have really touched our souls and changed the way we think about the world either, so it seems a little weird to hold that against such a gripping and well-made thriller. But this is definitely one of those movies that are so good that you can’t help but wish they were just a little better. It’s so close to being great that ending up just being “really good” is sort of a disappointment.
There’s no way around it, its Achilles heel is that stupid twist. A part of me feels like filmmakers this savvy must have known they were not fooling us, but boy, if they expect us to have our suspicions, nothing in the first half of the movie structurally seems to suggest as much. It’s just one long red herring, and then another movie. That’s always a risky proposition even when you can pull it off (see: AFRAID OF THE DARK, PSYCHO), but made even a bit more frustrating in this case because I can’t help but feel like the more interesting story here is the one it’s pretending to be for the first half. That story is full of paranoia, ambiguity and intrigue. The second story is, at its base level, torture porn. Artfully acted, meticulously crafted torture porn, but torture porn all the same, and at its heart not even a particularly smart or observant iteration of that nebulous subgenre. This is objectively one of the best movies I saw this season, but somehow I still can’t shake the feeling that the talent on display here could have added up to more than this.
*I read a few others, and they’re all at least as --if not a lot more-- spoiler-y as this one. There’s really just no way to review this without getting into something the movie doesn’t reveal until a good way in.
CHAINSAWNUKAH 2015 CHECKLIST!
Play it Again, Samhain