Tuesday, December 08, 2015
The Films of 2015: Goodnight Mommy
[Beware of Major Spoilers!]
Goodnight Mommy (2015) is a new Austrian horror film that has earned a tremendous amount of positive buzz, in part because of a skillfully-edited -- though ultimately deceptive -- trailer.
Watch the trailer (posted earlier today on the blog) and you’ll understand my point. The imagery featured in the clip implies that the movie is pure horror, featuring an Evil Mother-type (in bandages) chewing on insects and evidencing inexplicably sinister behavior towards her twin boys. At one point, she moves -- alone in the woods -- in a distinctly inhuman way.
The truth of the film, however, is something quite different.
In fact, Goodnight Mommy is actually a psychological horror film of the torture porn variety.
And it isn’t the (apparently fearsome…) Mom who inflicts all the suffering.
Instead, it is an angel-faced, mentally-disturbed child who is the monster.
Here, a little boy ties the mother to a bed, mocks her for wetting her pants, and at one point even super-glues her mouth shut. All the while, Mom begs for release, for a return to sanity, and -- spurred on by guilt -- the child refuses.
The problem with this approach, beyond the deceptive trailer, is that Goodnight Mommy features no coherent cinematic point-of-view about its strange narrative.
Specifically, the film features at least two inexplicable moments that serve as creative “cheats,” and work against the movie’s real story, ostensibly about a very traumatized, very sick child.
In short, the movie is a hodgepodge of half-formed ideas -- like High Tension (2003) meets The Sixth Sense (1999) -- only one with no clear awareness that it boasts a responsibility to play fair with the audience in terms of setting and sticking to one set of rules, or one creative approach.
Critics and commercials are already hailing Goodnight Mommy as another must-see “sleeper” horror film: a worthy follow-up to last year’s The Babadook (2014), or this year’s It Follows (2015), essentially.
But caveat emptor.
Viewers expecting a similarly stimulating and horrific experience should temper their expectations, going in.
Goodnight Mommy is confused about what it is, and what kind of movie it wants to be too.
And that confusion, ultimately, takes away from the good performances and even the beautiful cinematography. There are moments of real power in the movie, but they are undone by the movie’s confusion about its own story-line.
“Am I alive?”
Following an operation that leaves her face bandaged, a mother (Susanne Wuest) returns home to her son, Elias (Elias Schwarz).
He is still traumatized by the death of his twin brother, Lukas (Lukas Schwarz), and carries on conversations with the dead boy. Lukas is either a delusion or a ghost, but ether way he is Elias’s constant companion.
Elias’s mother refuses to play into Elias’s delusion, and Lukas convinces Elias that she is not really their mother at all, but an impostor.
Elias is swayed, and with Lukas’s help he begins to torture the apparent stranger in their midst, hopeful that she will reveal what has happened to their real mother.
“I thought we agreed not to believe her.”
In my introduction to this review, I note that Goodnight Mommy “cheats” on at least two occasions. The story -- as you can detect from the synopsis -- involves a boy who fantasizes the continuous presence of his dead brother. We in the audience also see him, but his mother does not.
This mother may not be very nice. She may be suffering guilt of her own. But she is not a monster.
I won’t hold the shots and editing in the trailer against Goodnight Mommy, but at no point in the film does Mother munch on a living bug and then smile with diabolical glee. She munches on a cracker instead, and smiles.
The bug scene is actually part of a nightmare that Elias experiences. For the trailer, the two scenes -- which occur in different acts -- are edited together to suggest one continuous moment.
That’s not the cheat involving her, however, that I want to write about. Instead, there is a scene late in Goodnight Mommy wherein Mom runs out into the woods alone, and undergoes some kind of frightening seizure.
In horror movie vernacular, she goes all Jacob’s Ladder (1990).
Her head wobbles and twists in fast-motion, as if she is possessed by the Devil itself. To put it another way, her features twist and stretch in a way not possible in the natural world.
Let me be plain: This scene has absolutely nothing to do with the film’s narrative, about a sick kid punishing his mother for his own guilt.
She is not a demon.
She is not a monster of any kind.
She’s just an emotionally-tortured, grieving, recovering human being. So why on Earth does she get demon-faced at this juncture?
Well, it makes a hell of an image in the trailer doesn’t it?
Secondly, we get a shot, early in Goodnight Mommy, of Mom looking out a large window, into the yard. The camera is positioned outside the window, looking in at her, as she gazes out. Reflected on the window is the image of the two boys playing there.
Only one boy, however, should be reflected there, right?
Because Lukas -- as a ghost or as a delusion -- is not truly present in a physical, real sense.
Again, this is not a scene featuring Elias’s world view, as many other scenes in the film clearly are. This is the mother’s shot; a composition in which it is her (contemplative) gaze that matters. So why does the movie fool us with the image of two boys?
If this is her shot -- her view upon the world -- there should only be one.
Now ask yourself, just for a moment, what horror fans and movie critics would say if M. Night Shyamalan had pulled this “trick” in one of his films, like The Sixth Sense?
Queue the angry villagers with torches, right?
I believe that the story Goodnight Mommy attempts to tell involves no supernatural twists or entities at all, but rather psychological trauma and guilt. Little Elias feels responsible for Lukas’s death and so imagines him as a playmate.
When his mother won’t indulge his delusion, Elias blames her, and victimizes her.
He turns his anger at himself outwards towards her. In a nightmare, Elias directs terrible violence at his mother, cutting open her stomach (only to reveal swarming insects inside, which Elias collects as pets).
This dream sequence, I believe, reflects the idea that somewhere inside his psyche Elias understands (or at least registers) that he is the monster. He cuts open his mother, but his insects teem and skitter out. It is his own ugliness that he releases.
There is no place in this particular story for the demonic “moment” with the Mom alone in the woods, or the scene featuring a reflection of two children when we know, almost from the beginning, there is only one.
Such moments don’t fit. They seem designed purely to mislead.
Actually, it’s worse than that. These misleading moments in Goodnight Mommy diminish the ‘real’ story of psychological instability with gimmickry, special effects and trickery. They lead the audience to believe an outside influence (demons? ghosts?) must be at work, when in fact, human psychology is the only monster on display.
Now, one might argue that, at some point, Elias does see or view his mother as a sinister figure, like a demon. But again, we get to the significant issue of cinematic point-of-view. Elias is not present in the woods to see his mother seize and rattle like a monster. She is alone when it occurs Therefore, we must assume -- at the moment that this occurs -- she is some kind of inhuman monster. Why? The camera is clearly in omniscient, third-person mode here.
Make no mistake, there’s much intriguing material in Goodnight Mommy. For example, the boys see a photograph in an album of their mother with an exact lookalike.
Was this a twin sister that their mother murdered (the way, perhaps, that the sick Elias murdered his lookalike, Lukas?)
Mom’s excuse about this photo is not adequate, really. She claims the other woman is just a friend and they liked to dress in identical fashion.
And we never learn for certain how Lukas died, only that Elias “blames himself” for his death.
The mother’s identity, indeed, is kept in the air, even though a wall-sized photograph of her is seen prominently in many compositions. In each one, however, it is blurry, indistinct, so that we can garner no useful information from it.
We start to wonder: has she changed her face to resemble a dead sister? There are a few occasions in the film when Mom's image is doubled/reflected, and so the idea of a dead twin has some merit, I would argue. In the mirror, does she see herself or the "other?"
If so, there’s the possibility that the movie really concerns how psychological illness is passed from generation to generation. Mom doesn't turn into a demon in the woods so much as she attempts to reshape her identity to conform to one she misses, or covets; that of her dead twin.
But once more I must stress that the techniques and shots Goodnight Mommy adopts don’t work well with the story the film attempts to vet. They mislead instead of illuminate.
This is true, even in the valedictory shot: a family reunion in the Hereafter. All three characters are there, surrounded by burning embers. But a question: if the murdered woman was not Elias’s mother (as he and Lukas have agreed to believe) then they are in the afterlife not with their Mom (who ostensibly is still alive somewhere), but with the impostor they killed. Right?
Again, and again, the movie just doesn’t track logically.
And that fact doesn’t mean that Goodnight Mommy fails to be beautiful or creepy. Indeed it is beautiful and creepy. I enjoyed many aspects of it.
But finally, Goodnight Mommy is also infuriating. It is not at all what it presents as.
If you’re in the mood for a gruesome torture porn story -- and I don’t hate that genre as some fans do -- you may get some visceral satisfaction from it.
For those who prefer for their horror films to make sense on a literal as well as metaphorical level, the film is virtually certain to disappoint.