“Goodnight Mommy” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:39, three and a half stars.
The first time you watch “Goodnight Mommy,” you may spend the last half-hour watching the movie through your fingers. And then you’ll immediately want to watch it again.
The self-assured horror film from Austrian writer-directors Severin Fiala and Veronica Franz is a masterfully staged psychological horror film that turns nasty and visceral in its third act. But as gruesome as things get (and, boy howdy, do they), the filmmaking duo never lose sight of the emotional underpinnings of the film, a chilling exploration of how the fragile bonds of family can get perverted and warped.
The film opens in idyllic environs, in rural Austria at the height of the summer. Handsome, red-headed identical twins Lukas and Elias (real-life brothers Lukas and Elias Schwarz) happily explore the cornfields, lakes and caves surrounding their house. No one else seems to be around, but the brothers seem to be their own self-contained little universe, moving and thinking as one unit.
Where are their parents? Soon, a woman (Susanne Wuest) arrives home, her face swathed in bandages that make her look like a store mannequin. She insists she’s their mother, home from the hospital for some unspecified operation, and the boys are cautiously happy to see her. But then she begins acting strangely, insisting that the brothers keep the blinds closed, refusing all visitors, even seeming to pit one brother against the other.
It’s when she tries to rupture Lukas and Elias’ fraternal bond that they start to wonder — is this really their mother? Tensions escalate exquisitely in the house between mother and sons, as Fiala and Franz refuse to give us our bearings, denying us the satisfaction of knowing who to side with. The boys’ behavior escalates from mischievous to creepy to harmful, but we’re never sure who is aggressor and who is victim here, and why, until the very end.
“Goodnight Mommy” is almost austere in its horror, not relying on ominous music (the soundtrack is barely there) or dark shadows (most of the film takes place in deceptively cheerful sunlight). Instead, Fiala and Franz use long, deliberate takes and brilliant sound design (the slithering rasp of blinds being raised and lowered is used to great effect) to keep us on edge. The film throughout is expert at presenting how the world that can seem so mundane to an adult can be full of mystery and terror for a child.
The tension finally boils over in the stomach-turning final few minutes, which dare the audience to come along to some very dark places. But what lingers in the mind afterward isn’t those moments of violence, but the silent, implacable stares of two children who just want things to be normal again.