It’s October 30th at the Alamo Drafthouse. My brother and I sitting there, talking: “I like foreign films because they make you pay attention.” Next thing I know, a few rows below us I see a man wearing the pumpkin mask from Halloween III. It was a comforting sight. [Read a piece on Halloween III].
Goodnight Mommy reminds me of The Very Things with their “Mummy You’re A Wreck” song. In addition to complimenting any Halloween playlist, there’s a striking bond between that “mummy” and the one in this film: they’re both in rather poor shape and frightening those that care for them.
Having returned home swathed in bandages and looking like a modern version of the classic monster, is, Mom. I don’t know mom’s name and it doesn’t matter. Mom is Mother, and Mother’s the anchor.
Mother’s had some facial surgery. Her face is unrecognizable, swollen with dark purple bruises. It’s an abject horror nearly too much for her young boys, twins Elias and Lukas, to bear. (Note too that one red eye. Angry red eye and it’s looking at a boy emerging from the dark and he’s scared and you’re watching it and . . . oohh.). And Mother’s not exactly warm to the boys’ reservations about her current condition, either. Which, for the caring, concerned mother, is rather odd. Something in the way . . . .
Mother carries the keys to the home (no male figure, no male presence) like some sullen warden, even locking the boys in their room on occasion. A rather stylized shot comes. It helps to paint Mother’s picture for the audience. Dark shot of her standing before the mirror, tan chemise swaying in front of the Dyson while she looks and looks, bandages on her face, trouble on her mind. Her boys hiding out in the cramped safety of their room, speculating about Mom’s new mien, wondering what to do about it, how to behave.
Mother is exceedingly irritable too. Has new, off-putting demands: no sunlight, no visitors to their home, and no disruption of her incredibly important rest. Viewers sense the window of affection closing in on the relationship between she, Elias and Lukas faster with each transition of scene. This doesn’t seem to be the same woman heard on a recording singing solace to her boys’ pains while she was off having her surgery. “Lullaby and Goodnight,” she sang.
Elias and Lukas are having a hard time with it all. For them, youth and the understanding that ripens in raw experience, lacks an elder’s guidance. Boys have their imagination and these boys have nature in the beautiful Austrian countryside to exhaust their burning energy. But Mother is the strongest presence of any nurturing quality, and rarely is she present as a mother or simply anything but a towering, implacable figure holing herself up, internally, externally, in the dark. No love. No closeness. What’s to become of these boys? asks the viewer.
Despite it eventually being depicted as recourse to a crushing loneliness incubated inside of their home, Elias’ and Lukas’ adventurous play in the countryside seems promising. In other stylized, beautiful sequences shot on the “glorious 35mm,” the boys are seen having the time of their lives in the arms, so to speak, of the natural world. Scenes of the them outside, laughter and roaming, roughing each other up, racing through corn stalks, swimming, are uplifting.
From a viewer’s standpoint, though, perhaps it’s a bit too pacifying. Such warm shots shown in a flush of sunlight induce a bit of drowsiness in the dark of the theatre like a cloud of henbane. The effect is short-lived, though, ending as quickly as the freedom Elias and Lukas feel in their outdoor play. The quiet voice of the countryside is no remedy for the growing horrors of doubt awaiting the boys in their home; though it spells disaster for the family, for the audience, this is where Goodnight Mommy really starts to heat up. Sick heat, sickening shots, sickening sights.
Mother says she’s Mother, but what else would a person posing as your mother say when you ask them if they’re truly your mother and they stand to lose considerably by telling you otherwise? Since she’s been home, hardly a kind word, no loving touch, just the commands. Elias and Lukas can’t understand it. Logically, they decide (aided by family photo albums, the wrong eye color and a missing mole on her face) that she’s somebody else.
“She’s so different” says Elias. And the boys’ thoughts as cruel blooms grow into their imaginations unrestricted. They don’t want to be lied to. Need love. Badly. At what price will it come?
Goodnight Mommy’s power lies in the build; in the growth of the film into the evil that replaces the love and trust between mother and son poisoned by an avalanche of pain. There’s trouble here and it’s often highlighted by the filmmakers’ use of stark images, like the mirror shot mentioned earlier; like the nature shots with the boys; like a dead cat in a fish tank on the living room table (how’s that for a symbol of disconnect?).
The attentive powers of the viewer are tested in these moments: make the connections, follow the signs. Notice the home, how grand, large, how expertly and artfully furnished. See too the roach as wide as your middle and index finger combined scurrying up the wall. The two sights, one of affluence, the other disgust, aligned, clash considerably. There are many others, mostly of disgust, but at the risk of spoiling . . . .
Losing touch and patience, needful of truth from the mouth they are desperately in need of trusting, Elias and Lukas go overboard: Mother wakes to her hands and feet bound to her bed. This time she knows, physically, how little meaning her words have in her boys’ doubting minds. Mother wakes to Elias and Lukas still and masked. “How do I get up?” she asks. “You don’t,” is her reply.
Amid agonizing screams, yet again the shot of beauty shines through. What’s heard is an awful discordance coming from the room with the boys and their mother, as in shrieks indicating the birth of inflicted pain; yet, what’s shown through the lens, what’s seen by viewers—bright green leaves suffused with sunlight, a green that glows under the radiance no matter what humans do/are doing/have done, and for whatever reason(s). This shot is harnessed for all the eternity of a torturous truth.
Over all the evil, the honey sun, still golden. There is growth and there is decay, and there’s the echo of Mother’s lullaby trapped in youth as green as the leaves.