Pristinely vicious, the Austrian thriller “Goodnight Mommy” spins a fairy tale about twin boys, played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz, who live in a sleek, scarily minimalist country home with their mother, a television personality (we gather through a few clues) portrayed by Susanne Wuest. Outside this soulless abode, the boys spend their days romping in a bucolic playground, dashing through rows of corn, exploring the woods nearby.
Mom has changed, however. She has returned home from a hospital stay with her head nearly covered in bandages. Her affect seems off. Only her eyes, wide and alarming, can be seen fully. The boys wonder whether this altered version of their mother, a threatening, bullying figure, is truly the same person. “Goodnight Mommy” soon turns extremely violent, as the boys turn the tables on their tormentor. “We want our mom back,” one of the boys says.
The film’s original title, “Ich seh, Ich seh,” translates to “I see, I see,” referring to an I Spy game the film expands thematically to encompass a host of suspicions. The filmmakers are Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the partner and nephew of producer Ulrich Seidl, respectively. Seidl’s own films, notably the clinically unsparing “Paradise” trilogy, clearly had an influence on the imagery and the dispassionate nastiness of this domestic nightmare. The film’s progression is scored by variations on the famous Brahams’ “Cradle Song,” which we first hear and see as performed on television by the Trapp Family Singers. It’s a heavily ironic use of the most comforting lullaby imaginable.
Flashes of “Goodnight Mommy” are forceful and blackly funny, as when a pair of Red Cross volunteers pays a visit to this isolated house at a particularly tense moment. In her bandages, Wuest evokes memories of such films as “Eyes Without a Face” or the Pedro Almodovar riff on that film, “The Skin I Live In.” As the boys’ acts of revenge become more explicit and, I think, less imaginatively creepy, the movie becomes a different sort of movie, following narrative bread crumbs in a straight line leading toward a major plot twist. It’s pretty easy to spot. And yet, tightly controlled in its depiction of a family dynamic that’s a little too late for counseling, “Goodnight Mommy” is sporadically skillful enough to transcend its own open secret.
☆☆☆ out of 5
Cast: Lukas and Elias Schwarz, Susanne Wuest, Hans Escher.
Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala.
Running time: 1:40
Rated: R, for disturbing violent content and some nudity.