Goodnight Mommy (2014)

SEPTEMBER 13, 2015


I have been hearing great things about Goodnight Mommy (German: Ich Seh, Ich Seh, or "I see, I see") for about a year now thanks to festival appearances, but so far I had successfully avoided knowing anything about its narrative - I didn't read any reviews, watch the trailer, etc. I didn't even know what kind of movie it was until Sam Zimmerman said a few words about it in his intro for a piece about Bloody Birthday, and while I was kind of bummed to blow my total ignorance so close to seeing it (like, 3 days - after a YEAR of avoiding any details!), it just got me more excited about it. I didn't put the sub-genre tag in the review in case you're just as blind (or even if you've only seen the trailer, which kind of brilliantly teases a different kind of film), but technically it wouldn't really count as a _____ movie anyway - in fact it's kinda got its foot in a couple of doors.

But whatever label you want to throw at it, I think we can all agree this is a very good suspense flick; the sort of thing you might only watch the one time but will be kind of knocked out by it. There are pretty much only three people in the movie: a mother and her twin sons (other characters pop up briefly, such as a deliveryman, but none more than a few minutes), and watching their fractured family unit crumble over the course of the 90ish runtime is the main draw - I suspect the movie won't inspire a lot of repeat business beyond appreciating the performances. The basic plot is about how the two young boys start to suspect that their mother is not really their mother (her face is covered in bandages after an operation), and the depths they go to in order to prove they are right. Susanne Wuest as the mother has an extremely tough role, as she has to stay a bit aloof in order for the film's central mystery to work, but can't do anything that would be construed as a "cheat" once you have all of the information about her character. So she has to be sympathetic and potentially evil in equal measures, without ever doing anything that would tip her too far in one direction - almost until the very last minute of the movie.

And like The Visit, the movie focuses on two child actors who thankfully aren't annoying (before you argue, the rapping kid in Visit was a good actor with an annoying trait - that's not the same thing), with a story that works best if you keep in mind that it's two young minds shaping the action. Some of their decisions are silly (others terrifying), and none of them should have an adult in the audience saying "What *I* would do is...". Of course you'd do whatever seemingly intelligent thing came to your mind - you're an adult. These are just frightened, lonely kids, so super-gluing someone's lips shut without realizing that they'd have to feed her later is totally within the logic that such young minds would possess. I had a bit of trouble telling the two apart (kind of the point in some scenes, I think), but they're pretty great, and even when things get dark you can see their childish enthusiasm shining through - making it far more disturbing.

One thing kind of kept me at bay though, and while I won't explicitly say it, I'll talk around it and it will probably be obvious what I'm talking about, if not right now then pretty much as soon as the movie starts. So skip the next paragraph if you're not into vague spoilers!

So the movie has a kinda twist to it that I spotted pretty early on; it's one you've seen in other movies that is usually a bit harder to see coming, and some have suggested that the filmmakers aren't even trying to hide it from you. Which I could believe, but A. I've ALSO seen movies where this was the case and they made sure to flat out say it after like 40 minutes to make sure everyone was on the same page, and this movie lacks that moment. And B. if it WAS supposed to be obvious, what purpose would that serve? There isn't any narrative benefit to knowing it like 10 minutes in (as I did), and it kept distracting away from certain scenes because I couldn't help but wonder how things were being seen through another character's eyes, and also I kept looking for holes in my own theory, hoping I was wrong (I know that's hard to follow if you haven't seen the movie or don't know the twist, but believe me it tracks!). Like, it seemed SO obvious to me that I thought they were trying to make you think that just to throw you for a loop later, but that's not how it plays out - and it kind of killed part of the fun for me. If you've never seen a movie with this particular idea before, I'm sure you'll miss it entirely - the filmmakers can't possibly be assuming the general audience has seen a dozen of them. Once the movie confirmed my suspicions (in the final 5 minutes) I was denied what should have been a fun little "How did I MISS that?" moment of replaying scenes in my head. Instead I was just happy that they finally caught up.

Thus, for me, the main question was "is the mom really the mom, or an impostor?", which I thankfully didn't know either way until the very end. The movie is thankfully vague enough that either answer would be satisfying, though - not spoiling it either way - if she WAS really their mom, it's hard to garner a lot of sympathy for her for quite some time (even after they start getting more direct with their interrogation) because we're seeing everything through the boys' eyes. You could possibly shoot this entire movie again from her perspective and make it an entirely different kind of horror experience. Also, they repeatedly use Brahm's Lullaby throughout the movie (which is in German, by the way), which was funny to me because it's the rare time the lyrics are used (usually it's just the melody), and I have my own lyrics I use to get my son to sleep that I've been singing for so long that I had kind of forgotten the real (admittedly better) ones.

Like many a festival favorite, I suspect some of the "blown away" type raves were due to people being able to sit down without having any idea of what they were about to see (and also possibly being one of 4-5 movies seen in a single day, with the others being average). It's a slow burn film (the idea that the mom may not be the mom doesn't even gel until around the halfway point) centered on a plot device that's been employed in any number of horror movies (including some with twins), so until the 3rd act there really isn't anything novel to it. It's a really good film, don't get me wrong - but don't be surprised if you'll walk out wishing you had been the first to see it.

What say you?


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