When Goodnight Mommy finally received a limited theatrical release in September 2015, it had already developed a reputation on the festival circuit as one of the horror films to watch that year. It was deemed “pure nightmare fuel” by one reviewer, and the phrase was prominently plastered on many of the film’s posters. Expectations were high, which unfortunately left many viewers dissatisfied. Nevertheless, Goodnight Mommy remains one of the most chilling and socially-revealing horror films of the decade– even if its central themes require excess effort to uncover.
The German-language horror film follows twin nine-year-olds, Elias and Lukas, who play together outside their isolated lakeside home– wresting, swimming, and exploring the nearby lake, forest, and corn field. When their mother comes home after undergoing cosmetic surgery, with her face wrapped in layers of bandages, her behavior is perceived by the boys as strange and often threatening. She insists on keeping their house blinds closed and lashes out in rage whenever they are disobedient.
The mother becomes increasingly cold and detached from the boys, as they both ponder the possibility that their mother is gone and replaced with an impostor. So they devise a plan to investigate what happened to their real mother and unmask who has taken her place. As their relationship becomes more hostile and the boys grow more desperate, the situation escalates to brutal violence.
Goodnight Mommy is darkly sadistic and spends much of its 100-minute runtime with an extremely graphic torture scene, making it difficult for the film to escape comparisons to the work of fellow Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, who also directed the 1997 psychological horror thriller Funny Games. Both films also take a minimalist approach to horror effects and reap the atmospheric benefits of its mostly isolated lake-side setting.
Writer and director duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala toy with the idea of their film’s many narrative loose ends, which viewers will find either thrilling or frustrating. What happened to the father? Why is the basement freezer stocked with a year’s supply of pepperoni pizza? Who is the woman in the mother’s photographs? How did the family come to live in this modern mansion? Who killed the cat and why did the brothers submerge it in an aquarium? What prompted the mother to get plastic surgery? And the final act raises more questions than it answers.
I will admit that Goodnight Mommy, for me at least, was remarkably more enthralling with a second viewing. My first time watching, I found some of the slow-burning lead-up to the shocking climax to be needlessly titillating. It’s easy to grow resentful by the amount of dots Goodnight Mommy requires its viewers to connect– and how far apart some of those dots are. Furthermore, many might find the relentless confrontations and emotional abuse that twins and mother volley back and forth to be emotionally exhausting to witness.
However, with my second viewing, about three years later, I had a greater appreciation for what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish: a purposefully-crafted web of suspense that requires eagle-eyed attention to decipher. Many of the above questions were answered during some blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scenes that fill in the pieces to the narrative puzzle. Goodnight Mommy expects sharp attention and makes you put the pieces together yourself.
Goodnight Mommy clearly takes inspiration from 2003’s South Korean psychological horror film A Tale of Two Sisters, which also maintains a similarly eerie atmosphere and involves two siblings’ strained relationship with their parents. Unfortunately, if you’ve already seen the South Korean horror drama, you’re likely to foresee Goodnight Mommy’s twists. But even if you see the film’s final twist coming (and many do), it shouldn’t necessarily detract from enjoying the journey to the shocking conclusion.
Elias: Tell us where our mom is.
The mother: I’m your mom!
Goodnight Mommy’s final act sees the mother admitting to Elias that Lukas had died in an accident that she is his real mother. This implies that Elias has been imagining Lukas since the start of the film as a delusion brought on by his inability to accept the death of his twin brother– possibly as a result of accidentally causing it. But that is by no means the only way to interpret the film, which ends with Elias catching the house on fire and watching his mother die in the flames before all three reunite in the corn field. There are many ways to interpret this ending, including:
- The woman is their mother and Elias has been imagining Lukas this whole time; Elias and mother die in a fire and are reunited in the afterlife.
- The woman is their mother and Elias has been imagining Lukas this whole time; the mother dies in a fire and now both Lukas and mother exist in Elias’ delusions.
- The woman is an imposter and Elias and Lukas were correct in attempting to pressure her for answers; both brothers escape and they imagine reuniting with mother in the field.
The most accepted conclusion is the first of these, which is the one we’ll use to analyze the underlying message presented in the film. With the assumption that Elias had built a delusion of Lukas after his passing, we can interpret that Elias is suffering from delusions caused by his inability to come to grips with his twin brother’s death. Grieving a sibling (especially a twin) carries with it unique challenges.
For one, Elias must reexamine his role within the family as the only son. Identity crises play a major role in Goodnight Mommy. After all, what better way to examine identity than with a twin? Furthermore, the film’s focus on the mother’s plastic surgery also reflects her changing identity after the death of Lukas.
Elias’ delusions may also be the result of guilt. The mother’s dialog at the end of the film that Elias mustn’t feel guilty about the death of his brother, may also suggest that he may have played a role in Lukas’ death. In one earlier scene, the two brothers are playing hide and seek near a lake. After Elias opens his eyes to find Lukas, he instead gazes at a section of the lake with bubbles rushing to the top. This could allude to a scenario wherein Lukas died while the two were playing unsupervised outside, which could also be why the mother insisted throughout the film that Elias stays inside and why she also seems burdened with guilt from not properly watching over the boys.
The mother’s perspective offers additional unique insights. According to Tracy Moore for Jezebel, Goodnight Mommy also “doubles as a cautionary tale against modern motherhood, a disturbing metaphor for the way it demands relentless self-sacrifice and maddening consistency at a high price.” Moore makes the sharp assessment that the film showcases a horrific manifestation of the societal expectations of the modern mother.
The mother must be beautiful and gentle and authentic. She must maintain a fulfilling career while simultaneously being always available to her children. For the mother in Goodnight Mommy, these expectations practically tear her apart. And in the end, it is a thankless (and brutal) job. She destroys herself to maintain her maternal responsibilities, and she’s punished for it with suspicion (from her sons and us as an audience).
At its release, Goodnight Mommy was critically acclaimed. But it deeply divided general audiences. Your reaction to the 2014 Austrian film will largely depend on your tolerance for several of its key features: its hauntingly dreadful atmosphere, its many questions left unanswered, and its sometimes grotesque depictions of body horror. But Franz and Fialam set out to make a challenging horror film, not one with easily tied loose ends. And that, at least, is something we can all agree on.