Goodnight Mommy (aka Ich seh Ich seh, literally “I see I see” but culturally translated as something more akin to “I spy with my little eye”) is the non-documentary feature directorial debut of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, who previously collaborated on 2012 documentary Kern. The film stars twins Elias and Lukas Schwarz as twins Elias and Lukas and Susanne Wuest as their mother (maybe). Released in Austria last year, the film has made its way stateside and is generating non-negligible buzz in the international film community, despite an unsurprising “twist.” As one commenter on Salon’s review of the film says, “If you haven’t guessed [the plot twist] by ten minutes in, you haven’t seen a movie before,” and, with all the positive buzz surrounding the movie, I hate to admit that he or she is right.
To be fair, this doesn’t detract from the film overall as much as one would expect. The plot follows the young twins as their mother, a TV presenter, returns home after receiving extensive cosmetic surgery. Bandaged and almost unrecognizable, she begins to act erratically, uncharacteristically imposing new house rules that enforce silence and solitude, cruelly ignoring one twin completely, and behaving in a physically threatening manner that both boys say their mother would never exhibit. Evidence that she may be an impostor begins to mount: a beauty mark that she used to have is revealed to be drawn on; her eyes are blue now, which she claims is due to contact lenses; when shown a photo of herself and another girl in identical outfits and with whom she shares physical attributes, she is either unwilling or unable to name the other person in the picture.
Even if you, like me and many others, spot the revelation coming ninety minutes before it’s verbalized, that doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy the ride. This is a smart, taut movie that is beautifully composed and cinematically crisp, full of beautiful exterior landscape shots that highlight the isolation of the two boys and contribute to the logic of their slowly building paranoia in a home that no longer feels safe and a caregiver they cannot recognize. The major issue is that this movie is clever and inventive, but not quite as clever and inventive as it thinks it is. After all, I saw this same twist in an episode of Supernatural eight years ago, and although it wasn’t fresh then, it managed to elicit a gasp while this film garnered an “I knew it!” So much of the foreshadowing works—the twins’ game of tag in the cornfield where they exchange a grotesque homemade mask between themselves when one becomes predator and the other prey is particularly well-done, as it sets up the theme of hidden faces and the way that the tables will eventually turn—but the film also might have benefited from reining in the precognitive images that reference the coming twist in order to preserve the surprise. If the film-makers had played their cards closer to the vest instead of showing their hand so early, there would be an extra star at the top of this review.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond