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Goodnight Mommy is a con, the cinematic equivalent of one person pointing to the sky while another picks your pocket. It’s not the kind of gasp-inducing sleight-of-hand from slick (or once-slick) tricksters such as Alfred Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan; it’s unoriginal and duplicitous—unoriginal in its duplicity—an alleyway robbery via three-card monte. The hype that followed as the film filled its dance card around the world can be chalked up only to festival fever, or filmgoers who don’t mind lukewarm seconds.
Written and directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, both of whom are making their feature debuts here, the Austrian Goodnight Mommy is told from the perspective of twin boys, Lukas and Elias (Lukas Schwarz and Elias Schwarz), who are amusing themselves on their acres of land when their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home after having plastic surgery. Her face is bandaged, bruised, and monstrous; you don’t completely blame them for not running into her arms.
From that point on, she’s irritable, overreactive, and sometimes just plain mean as she scolds the boys for everything they do or don’t do and refuses to talk to Lukas. (When she gives Elias a drink and Lukas whispers to his brother that he also wants one, she says, “Then he can ask me himself.”) Soon she sets up new rules for the house, one of them being “absolute silence” so she can recover from surgery. The boys are also not allowed to bring anything from the great outdoors into the house. (They have a thing for cockroaches, which they keep in an aquarium.)
This essentially masked woman is acting more Mommie Dearest than Mom, and the boys want to know who she is. There’s a random clue in the form of a photo of herself smiling with a lookalike, but otherwise the film is full of details that are weird for the sake of weird: an apparent family habit of opening and closing the blinds to signal the nobody who’s out there, a delivery of a freezer’s worth of frozen pizzas, the twins standing close together and in the same position, à la The Shining. (Were twins creepy before The Shining?)
But there’s no logic to the premise. If she is their mother, why is she being such a jerk? (A lullaby recorded pre-surgery shows a clearly softer, more loving voice.) If she’s not their mother, why would an impostor want to do little but be stern with the boys? The answer is a cheat, and once Goodnight Mommy takes a sharp left into torture-porn territory, your hopes—or fears— of those nightmares the trailer promised are dashed. Sure, a roach may crawl into Mother’s mouth. But little of this gets under your skin.
Goodnight Mommy opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.