goodnight mommy (2014)
Over the years it's been stated by many filmmakers that the reason they got into the craft was their desire to play a room full of people like a fiddle. Fine. I've always sided with Tarkovsky et al when it comes to this notion, because being in a darkened theater with an open mind is a dangerous place to be without a well-intentioned auteur to be your guide., and someone who wants to play you in any way is far less intriguing than one who wishes to enlighten. Welcome in, then, Goodnight Mommy; a film that's so well done in its opening two acts that you can't believe by the end of it that it's come to this. From the opening few minutes, Goodnight Mommy spills itself all over the screen, sneaking up behind us, slowly burning itself onto our retinas. The children that make up the film, both of them, resonate something that few others can; what's usually termed child-like innocence is actually a child-like misunderstanding of the world in which they live. Children must, over time, learn to perceive the consequences of their actions, the gravity of the pain one can inflict without knowing it (physically and otherwise) don't always become clear until later in life. Fertile ground, too bad the film itself is a disappointing bit of nonsense by the end of it, but you can't deny how effective it is for most of the runtime. There's more going on underneath the surface than the shock value, but when the shock value takes such center-stage (and we're left wondering by the climax whether or not the narrative subtext is accidental) it deserves to be thought through first.
The opening scenes rely on a bit of pensive, meditative reflection, and the film then pours most of that down the drain when it does its 180 that, we can only assume, has been the point all along. When does torture in film become too much? Also, how do we discern between Eli Roth and Michael Haneke when honestly I can't see much of a difference between the two in terms of content? The differences in their most torturous films are more formal than they are contextual; Haneke shoots his grotesqueries like an art film, Roth shoots it like porn (hence its monicker). They are simply the most prominent of their respective filmmaking approaches, I can't side with either as I find merit in their films in about the same frequency (although recent Haneke works like The White Ribbon and Amour have proven to be his best, well on the way to redefining what his ouvre means). Achieving effectiveness is a lowly goal in this forum where success seems to be getting an audience that's been 'desensitized' beyond all recognition to suddenly be so affected by the visuals onscreen that they're covering their eyes/running from the theater. I'd argue this is a bit of the slippery slope drum that gets beaten far too often, setting up a bar that "audacious" filmmakers will want to match and exceed as well as an easy thing for conservative film-goers and reviewers to complain about. Perhaps it's the definitively fucked up nature of the torture at hand. A madman who locks his victims in a dungeon? Hardly. It's something to watch the volley of authority on the screen, we see that the children are feeling like victims in their own home, the psychological underpinnings of what's at stake are clear as they hide and lock their doors, as they lurk around identifying with all manner of bug and beast around the house. The film here is so effective as the opening scenes show us a world where the children need to suddenly fear their own authority figure, a world that's been so rocked by tragedy and by a corruption of character that the children no long know where to turn. The problem here is that the film is somehow relying on a twist that isn't a twist .. you'll see it coming form a mile away, and it isn't helpful to the narrative purpose when it is finally "revealed" and so why reserve it as a revelation in the final ten minutes of the picture? Our directors can't really be under the impression that we were fooled? Uh oh. The worst of all is that even when the film is at its best, we're not going to be able to feel or know much of it as our mental gag reflex has taken over. The film has been seen as a genre success, this of course adds to the pointlessness of genre in fiction as it amounts to an equivalent of an active ingredient, telling us what the desired function of the work is that we might use our entertainment medicinally. "I want to be completely disgusted" and this is the prescription?
All that aside, where are we going with this? Again, it speaks to a world that has lost all trust in authority figures and actively fears what they cannot see, namely that when people go behind closed doors they must be up to something nefarious. The children are the obvious and easiest to place in the victim role at the outset. As the film progresses, however, the scales begin to tip. Soon, just as in modern life, as soon as one is not forthcoming with the details of their personal time, suspicions set in, it's not long before the children begin to spy on their mother through surveillance. Everybody hurts in this film and everybody is hurting. It is, of course, a unique litmus test for all spectators of such a display, at what point did your sympathies change and why? The helplessness that the authority figure feels as the torture progresses, how does one treat another when their sympathies toward them change them from kin into 'the other'? All terribly interesting notions, all terribly interesting parallels to a world of corrupt authority, surveillance, the loss of trust in the police force and government bodies to protect. In the modern US statistics like 'The average citizen is fifty times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist' resonate at a subconscious level and those reverberations result in a film like Goodnight Mommy. The film's final sequence brought the apathy bubbling to the surface, I could not have cared less that the movie had reached some faux climax as it had been beating a dead horse for at least the last twenty minutes. No longer are the children harmless and no longer are the answers clear, the questions raised by the plot at various points to bolster a double-reading whereby the mother is insane or the children are insane are conveniently dropped in a 'the film is whatever you want it be' schtick. The closing shot is ridiculous in its transparent attempt at being effective. The film has found a place where it is effective to a point in entrancing the audience, then completely repulsing them, but its clumsy finale highlights the flaws to a point where we cannot reverse to a place of entrancement. It's difficult to see the film as any more than a failed experiment by the end of it, but how great it was for a while there. It's rare to be simultaneously so affected and unaffected with something. Next go around perhaps.