The first part of this review is spoiler-free. Skip to "making sense of the twist" for a spoiler-heavy explanation of the story.
First things first: Goodnight Mommy has been hyped in the media as one of the scariest horror films in years. It's not. But it is one of the most horrifying. If you want jump scares, ghostly killers or a massive amount of bloodshed, this is not the film for you. This movie derives its horror from tension, which it builds artfully over the course of 90 minutes until all of the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. It's written with intelligence, which in itself is a rarity in this genre.
9 year old twins Elias and Lukas are playing in the countryside around their rural Austrian home when we meet them - swimming in the lake, hide and seek in the corn fields, catching their breath in matching pod chairs in their immaculate house. Ominously, there's no parent watching over them.
And then their mother returns. She's cold. Snappy. Her face is covered in bandages after a mysterious operation, the nature of which is never revealed. When she plays a game of who am I? with the boys, they put a sticker on her mummified head that reads "Mama", but even after numerous clues she can't guess that she is Mama. When the boys play back a recorded message on their phone from their mother pre-op, she's audibly affectionate: the contrast is stark, leading the boys, and us, to suspect that the woman under those bandages is not really Mama at all.
Other mysteries pile up, like the identity of a woman in a photograph who bears an extreme likeness to their mother, or why somebody comes to the house to deliver a year's supply of frozen pizza. They seem at first like red herrings or unanswerable riddles, but begin to make sense later.
If the boys aren't exactly scared of the imposter, they're cautious, playing in secret, at one point finding a stray cat and hiding her beneath the bed. You already know what happens to that cat. It proves to be a significant catalyst for the twins to start directing their own brand of violence toward "Mama", and at this point the film turns everything on its head, daring us to believe that maybe she is their mother after all, forcing us to ask new questions.
To say more would be to spoil the fun, but the film gathers pace and romps home toward a stunning, slightly heartbreaking climax. Director-duo Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala use the stillness of a too-perfect luxury home and the vast space of the Austrian countryside to evoke a constant sense of dread and the feeling that something awful is going to happen, or has already. Elias and Lukas Schwarz, playing the boys of the same names, are truly superb in roles which require them to say as much with their body language as with words, channeling that near-psychic connection only twins could share; Susanne Wuest gives her un-maternal performance a loaded ambiguity.
The bottom line is that Goodnight Mommy is a better, more original horror film than anything that's come along in years, finding its frights not in ghosts lurking in shadows or serial killers in masks, but in the unnatural absence of love between a mother and her sons.
Making sense of the twist - spoilers below...
It took until the pizza delivery scene for me to guess that Elias was having visions of his twin, which made sense of the earlier scene in which Mama put out just the one plate of food for her two sons. But even so the situation with the photo-graph of the mother and her doppelgänger planted seeds of doubt in my head as the film went on, and I didn't feel certain of it until Elias, torturing Mama, was calling for Lukas to return to the bedroom.
German speakers might have known sooner - the film's original title, Ich Seh, Ich Seh, refers to the game "I Spy", which in German begins "Ich seh, ich seh, was du siehst nicht" - literally "I see, I see, what you don't see". Elias sees what Mama doesn't. I'd be interested to know if German audiences guessed sooner.
There are two opposing theories regarding how Lukas died which both seem to make sense. The first is that he died in a house fire, possibly started by one of the boys - which explains why Mama freaks out when she finds the lighter in Elias' bunk bed. In the final shot of the movie, the house ablaze doesn't look like the same house the family live in, suggesting it could be a flashback to the original house fire.
On the other hand, Lukas could have drowned - hence the early scene which sees the boys on the lake playing a game of who can hold their breath longest underwater. When the cat dies, Elias, assuming his mother killed it, gets revenge by floating it in a tank full of water, which makes Mama furious. (Presumably the cat simply died of natural causes.) Also, in the burning scene at the end, mother tells Elias he shouldn't blame himself for the accident, which would tally with the notion of the underwater breathing game.
And what's the story behind the mysterious surgery? The photos discovered by the boys suggest the surgery was cosmetic, which could suggest Mama wanted a "fresh start" after the death of Lukas and the divorce. Her cold attitude and the long spells sleeping in bed might tie in with her exhaustion at playing the "Lukas game" with Elias for a time prior to her surgery. The scene in which she feigns sleep and then crunches on a biscuit once Elias is gone support the theory that Elias' refusal to accept Lukas' death has caused something in her to snap.
Some have suggested the surgery was reconstructive (as a result of the fire), but that doesn't make total sense given that (A) some time seems to have passed between the original accident and the surgery (she was already accustomed to Elias' delusions), and (B) the photographs with the surgeon's markings show she was not disfigured beforehand. For that reason I'm more inclined to buy into the drowning as the cause of Lukas' death.
The pizza was probably ordered by Elias, as he knew mother wouldn't feed Lukas and frozen pizza is the one thing a child can actually cook. This makes even more sense when you consider that in her online dating profile, the mother mentions her love of cooking, and therefore probably wouldn't bulk buy frozen pizza. But the woman in the photograph remains unexplained - she looked too identical to Mama to just be a friend. Any suggestions welcome...
Something I found particularly clever was that the way in which the audience interpreted the mother's inability to guess who she was in "who am I?" game would depend on whether or not you'd guessed the twist already. If you hadn't, that she couldn't guess she was Mama even after being told she has two sons would fuel the suspicion that she wasn't really Mama at all. But if you had, the clue not having any impact would make sense, because at that point she has only one son. A great example of how well this film is written.
Do you have any alternative theories? Do you think Goodnight Mommy stands up as a modern classic horror movie, or is it overrated? Share your thoughts below.