Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz’s directorial debut follows twins Elias and Lukas playing hard together in the lakes and corn fields adjacent to their countryside vacation home while they await the return of their mother. When she does arrive home, her bandaged and bruised appearance gives the boys pause as they’re forced to greet a countenance more akin to the Bride of Frankenstein than the mother they remember.  This mother, a TV personality recovering from cosmetic surgery, feels much colder than the one who left the twins, and the boys soon suspect this may not be their mother at all.

The seed that was planted by Mother and sons’ awkward reunion grows with Mother’s increasingly strange behavior.  She refuses to address one of the twins, and spends most of her days sleeping or lurking around in the dark. While she may seem more aloof, her behavior could be justified by her recovery; bed rest and avoidance of the sun are the doctor’s orders.  Thus begins the psychological game between Mother and the twins.  Is Mother really herself? Or are Elias and Lukas’ young imaginations running wild?

Fiala and Franz keep you guessing, utilizing clever contrast to build discomfort and tension.  The lush, isolated Austrian country side surrounding the stark, contemporary architecture of their home.  Long stretches of quiet that is punctuated with unsettling music.  A common motif in the house is a series of large hanging wall art that depicts blurred images of women, mirroring the Mother’s hidden face behind all of the gauze. The use of Catholic imagery surrounding the twins blurs the lines further as to who is right or wrong.

The cast is sparse, and the story is reliant upon the central trio of actors to not only create separate, believable characters, but to create a deeply layered relationship between them.  Elias and Lukas, played by Elias and Lukas Schwarz, begin as playful boys yet transition well into cornered animals desiring to be loved by their mother.  Mother, played by Susanne Wuest, deftly handles the tough job of relaying an eerie coldness as well as the earnest mother with tragic undertones.

The clues given throughout finally come together and results in a terrifying showdown.  On an emotional level, the climax is both heartbreaking and shocking.  How far these characters are willing to go to discover the truth seems to betray the very idea on which family is based.  But, for anyone paying attention to the details, the answer seems far more obvious early on and perhaps could have benefit from just a bit more subtlety.

The cinematography is stunning.  Wide shots of the boys enjoying the beautiful outdoor scenery in contrast to darkness within their own home.  The camera angles designed to make Mother downright sinister.  While the quiet sound design and the deliberate layering of clues are necessary, the run time feels longer than it actually is and the editing proves to be the one weakness.  Trimming down certain scenes would have created better pacing, including a particular scene that might have been added to break tension yet felt unnecessary instead.

Goodnight Mommy was Austria’s submission to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, and it’s easy to see why.  Superb acting, beautiful set and sound design, and intelligent camera work all elevates this deeply unsettling psychological thriller into something memorable.  But its uneven pacing and somewhat predictability that prevents Goodnight Mommy from achieving perfection.Goodnight-Mommy