Sunday, February 7, 2016

Women in Horror: Goodnight Mommy

* spoilers *

There's something wrong with the mother. Her face is covered by bandages as the result of cosmetic facial surgery and even through the bandages bruising is quite obvious. She seems to be completely different from before the surgery: more severe and less prone to laugh or sing like she used to. She puts strict rules on her twin boys Elias and Lukas to allow for her to rest and recuperate including complete silence in the house, blinds always drawn, and playing only outside. It's curious from the beginning that she completely ignores Lukas: doesn't serve him food or drink, doesn't accept presents from him, doesn't listen to what he says, and only interacts with Elias. When possible, she avoids the children altogether, even pretending to be asleep when they try to wake her. Could she be someone masquerading as their mother? 

Good Night Mommy centers around the mystery of the mother. The children think there's something wrong with her or she's a completely different person than she says she is. They do usual childish antics like being loud, bringing in cats from outside, and generally being kind of a nuisance. When caught, their mother becomes cruel and acts violently towards them.Then they discover pictures removed from the house, prompting them to investigate their mother further. Things escalate further when the cat they brought in the house is found dead in the basement. Elias and Lukas leave it for their mother to find in a terrarium and she flies into a fury, demanding Elias to repeat the she is his mother and to never talk to Lukas again. The boys are locked up in the house until the mother turns sweet and offers them a present. The first opportunity they get, they run away to a church to try to find help, but they are returned to their home.

At this point, I am completely sympathetic to the boys. Their mother's mercurial moods are unpredictable. The abuse she doles out is cruel and extreme considering the offending acts. Elias and Lukas are far from perfect, but they don't deserve to be treated terribly for acting like children. The whole situation is undeniably suspicious and it's understandable for the boys to looks for answers. The film is brilliantly constructed and filmed to build up uneasiness through a lot of pointed silences and uncomfortable scenes. Beyond the mother's abuse and the cat's death, nothing is really wrong, but something is definitely off in the house. Small things like the out of focus framed pictures, the mom's all white bedroom and dress, and the way the characters sometimes just stand and stare for uncomfortable stretches heighten the off kilter feeling. The amorphous and haunting soundtrack also adds to the uncomfortable atmosphere. The last third of the film throws everything we've believed into question.

When the mother wakes up, the boys have tied her up and literally torture her in a variety of ways including burning her face with magnifying glasses and supergluing her mouth shut to try to find out where their mom is. These scenes are incredibly uncomfortable both from the nature and length of the scene. My sympathy shifts from the sons to the mother even if she is an imposter. No matter what she's done, she doesn't deserve to be callously tortured. The mother finally concedes to allow Elias to speak with his brother because Lukas was killed in an accident. This was far from the conclusion I expected, but it makes sense. Elias already proved his capacity for cruelty with burning the bugs outside and presumably killing the cat himself off screen. Lukas always encourages him to be more extreme and callous because he is a hallucinated aspect of Elias' own psyche that can't process his twin's death. He reacts with violence possibly because his mother does so on a smaller scale. The film ends with Elias setting the house on fire after he challenges the mother to see his hallucinated brother and she fails. 

This brings me to the mother. I completely understand her after the last revelation of the film. She is processing her own grief while trying to raise her son and help him process his. Not only did her son die, but her husband also left her. She can't afford to keep the large house anymore and has to adjust to a great many new things in addition to her grief and her remaining son's grief. It must be painful for her to see and spend time with Elias since he looks exactly like Lukas, so she hides from him and doesn't quite know how to treat him when he misbehaves. The bandages symbolizes her own pain and grief. It keeps her from relating to her son and she needs time away from him to process, causing her to neglect her son's needs. Since Elias killed the cat, her reaction to that makes so much more sense. He murdered a cat and left if for her to find while denying she is his mother and talking to his dead sibling. While her abuse is still horrible, she's obviously overwhelmed and simply doesn't know how else to help her son with no other support. Her solution is to force him to repeat true things, but it simply doesn't force him to believe them. When she returns all smiles and presents, it's clear that she realizes how monstrous her actions were and she wants to make amends without actually admitting her faults. The mother is human and wants the best for her son. Like anyone else, she needed to process her own emotions and she made a mistakes along the way. 

Goodnight Mommy is slow burn film with incredibly uncomfortable scenes. The tragic ending shows how toxic denial and ignoring grief can be. Lukas and Elias Schwarz are amazing actors. They can elicit sympathy from the audience one moment as innocent children and then turn psychotic the next. Susanne Wuest is also formidable as the mother and brings depth to her role. It would have been easy to make the mother a flat character especially since her face is hidden for more than half the film, but Wuest makes the role memorable and keeps the audience guessing. I highly recommend Goodnight Mommy and I would recommend it to those who liked The Babadook as it shares theme and circumstances. 

My rating: 5/5 fishmuffins

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