Review: 'Goodnight Mommy' Will Make You Never Want to Have Kids

What perfect timing for Austrian filmmakers Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's Goodnight Mommy to arrive alongside M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit. While of vastly different origins both films are constructed from similar DNA, exploring the connection between parents and children, and how past tragedies can leave that bond murderously frayed. But that's about where the similarities end. Goodnight Mommy is a film with ice water coursing through its veins; coldly trapping us in an isolated nether realm where every neglectful action, every bitter word between mother and her sons is painful. Everything between them hurts us just as badly as it hurts them.

What's interesting about Franz and Fiala's approach is that they don't really try to hide the twist that is coming. Figuring it out doesn't take long, and knowing actually enhances every nerve-racking moment. We think, "How long can this possibly go on?", our stomachs tie into knots waiting for the blow-up that surely must come. Set in a lake-house somewhere in the Austrian countryside, we're introduced to twin siblings Elias and Luke (Elias and Lucas Schwarz), an adventurous duo with the twinkle of trouble-makers in their eyes. We see them exploring every inch of the peculiar locale; investigating caves, bouncing around on the oddly rubbery pavement, and capturing humongous beetles for their collection. What should be full of the exuberance of playful children is instead a strangely somber affair, instilling a sense of unease that will only get more intense as time passes.

It isn't long before we get an idea as to why. Their mother (Susanne Wuest), who has been gone for far too long, arrives home from some kind of radical reconstructive surgery. Her face bandaged up like a mummy, with only enough room for a pair of beady little eyes to peek through. Her demeanor is strangely cold; there's no show of joy at seeing her boys. Conversely, the twins suspect fairly quickly that she's not who she claims to be, and turn their attention towards proving it.

Tension mounts steadily from seemingly ordinary occurrences, expanded in significance by the imagination of a child's mind. A previously-unseen photograph of their mother in a family album draws their attention, not to mention her reluctance to answer simple questions. But is she really unable to answer their queries? Or is there a more sensible reason than that she's some kind of impostor? Teased is some kind of past turmoil between her and one of the brothers that causes her to be completely dismissive of him. It only adds to the growing mistrust, and a tightening of the sibling's bond against her. Soon, they're no longer asking questions, they're demanding answers.

The extent that "us vs. her" rivalry goes is perhaps Goodnight Mommy's greatest shock. This film goes places we would never expect it to go, and goes where other horrors wouldn't dare. In a way it would make for a good companion to The Babadook, exploring maternal instinct, or lack thereof, from a horrific angle. Franz and Fiala pinpoint that gulf of secrecy between parents and the young children they don't understand, creating a chilly atmosphere that draws parallels to the work of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl, the latter credited as a producer. The simple, minimal production design adds to the distress, opening up a vast emptiness impossible to ignore and tough to bear.

Parents with young children may never recover from what Goodnight Mommy does to them. Those without kids will probably want to keep it that way forever.

Rating: 4 out of 5