In September of last year, we were graced with Goodnight Mommy, a horror movie from German directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The film – about twin boys whose mother may not be who she claims to be – was originally noted for its super creepy and well-made trailer, which attracted moviegoers to its intriguing premise. The movie was well-received by most critics, currently holding an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but one thing in particular struck me about the reviews: almost no one discussed the ending, or its multiple meanings, or that it even contained interesting elements in either of these things. Most reviews decided, “Yes, the woman is the mom, let’s move on” or “No, the woman isn’t the mom, let’s move on,” but I was baffled that there wasn’t any further discussion regarding the matter.
Since its initial release, many more reviews have popped up discussing the movie’s layers, but even so, this author remained unsatisfied. Therefore, I come before you today with an in-depth, researched discussion for the meaning (metaphorical or otherwise) behind Goodnight Mommy.
Naturally this is a look into the deepest parts of the film, so spoilers are everywhere. Additionally, this is the author’s own opinion, so you don’t have to agree; the purpose is to create discussion about the movie, and to seek to highlight what makes it so thought-provoking.
Now that that’s all out of the way, let’s get to it!
Part I: The Accident
To open up the discussion in a nice linear fashion, let’s start at the beginning of the narrative: namely, what exactly went down prior to the opening of the film. What exactly happened that caused the inciting incident of the film? (Namely, Lukas’s death and the mother’s need for plastic surgery?)
There are several different possibilities that are presented to us throughout the film, the first of which is the possibility that Lukas drowned at the beginning of the film. We see this in the very opening scene: the boys are playing in the grassy area behind their house, and after some exploring, the two settle for a swim in the lake. Elias is floating on a makeshift raft while Lukas takes a quick dive. But he doesn’t come back up. Elias calls his name, suspicious, but still no Lukas. Could we be witnessing the actual death of Lukas in this scene, drowned while his brother looks on, unaware?
Certainly this would explain why the mother is trying to sell the house, which the boys notice while snooping on her computer, not wanting to deal with the sadness and guilt of living in the house after such a tragedy. It wouldn’t necessarily give an easy explanation as to why she needs plastic surgery (although the real reason could be entirely psychological, which we’ll go into later), but it would certainly instill enough guilt in her son as to why he begins seeing his dead twin as a delusion.
The second theory, which has taken a lot of credence in online discussions of the film, is that the family was involved in a car accident before the film began, one that killed Lukas, spared Elias, and scarred his mother to the point of needing cosmetic surgery. This would make sense, given that such debilitating accident would cause the mother to not be able to return to the house for quite a long time, leaving Elias essentially alone with his thoughts – and a dead brother.
However, there are many problems with this theory. For one thing, we can see that the mother’s surgery has been planned for some time now – certainly before any accident – because of the pictures we see pinned on the wall, showing a perfectly normal, unscarred face. Only her face needs surgery, not the rest of her body, something that would be unavoidable in a serious car accident. Secondly, the mother tries to comfort Elias late in the movie by saying the accident is “not [his] fault” – why would she say this if he was obviously a passenger, a bystander in the incident? Finally, most damning of all, there isn’t a single mention of a car at all, implicit or otherwise; the accident is simply referred to as “the accident.” Perhaps viewers make the connection because car crashes are an extremely common trope in film (especially involving children and their parents), but there is no mention of it anywhere in Goodnight Mommy.
The final theory, and to me the strongest of the three, is that there was a fire that took place before the film happened, which Elias accidentally started, and took the life of his brother. Despite a lack of physical evidence (there are no signs of a fire having taken place on the property, and rebuilding after a fire only to sell the house later would be slightly unrealistic), there are clear signs pointing to it: not only Elias’s possession of a lighter, but the mother’s outright fear of it. Additionally, the ending of the movie involves Elias causing a fire, something he seems remarkably skilled at for an 8-year-old. Regardless of if the fire caused the mother to need reconstructive surgery (previously explained arguments point to “no”), it seems too perfectly ironic that a fire that killed his brother previously would be the same reason for him killing the mother – both times accidentally.
Of course, if none of the accidents were the incentive for the mother to require plastic surgery, then what was the reason? Or did she even get surgery at all? Who is the mother?
Part II: The Mother (Fake)
Perhaps the biggest question of the whole film – the reason for why events spiral out of control like they do – is the identity of the mother. For the sake of argument, let’s take a look at both possibilities, starting with the likelihood that the mother is as Elias claims her to be: an impostor.
There are several clues that point to the idea that the mother isn’t who she says she is. First and foremost, there’s the photo that the boys come across in their downtime: a photo showing the mother, and what appears to be a twin, or someone closely resembling the mother. This discovery and the ensuing witch hunt are punctuated by a number of other potential herrings (red or not) that appear later in the movie: the question of the mother’s real eye color versus if she was wearing contacts (Elias cannot seem to find them when he searches); her odd, semi-abusive behavior; and the fact that when questioned about several pointed facts about the boys’ likes and dislikes, she cannot answer them correctly, if at all.
This is the biggest question to me concerning the mother’s identity: if the woman really is the boys’ mother, then why doesn’t she try harder to persuade them otherwise? At any point during her torture, she could have given them other facts that could have proven herself – their birthdays, their favorite foods, movies they liked, a trip they went on together – but instead stays silent. There is a point when a mother should stand firm to her children; torture is usually a point when you should start considering other options instead of begging for release or utter silence. You could argue that, if this is the real mother, that she would be under a lot of pressure – and you would be correct – but it seems questionable to not provide an explanation to something that the boys are obviously keen on finding the answer to…especially if your well-being is on the line.
However, as stated in an interview with the directors, the film’s major theme is miscommunication, a theme that would hold far less weight if the mother turned out to be an impostor. There are theories that the twin took the mother’s place after a fatal accident, but why would someone go through all of the trouble to appear as the mother instead of, you know, explaining it to the kid and taking them somewhere else? Lack of communicating is the theme, but wouldn’t it be more dangerous (and more expensive) for someone to undergo plastic surgery, where a simple car ride pick-up-and-drop-off would be so much less life-threatening? Why bother for the sake of sentimentality?
Therefore, what if the entire time, despite the boys’ suspicions, the mother is in fact herself, attempting to simultaneously wrestle with a divorce, the death of one of her children, and a life-altering surgery?
Part III: The Mother (Real)
As previously stated, the mother clearly decided to get cosmetic surgery without incentive from an accident. We see the print-out of her face on the wall, and she looks completely fine. If she were to get work done following an accident, there would likely not be any print-outs at all at the home; they’d be with the doctors. This is a procedure that she must have been already thinking of, perhaps even before Lukas’s death.
But miscommunication is the theme of Goodnight Mommy, and the mother, wrapped in her grief regarding the loss of two important family members (her husband, from divorce; her son, from accident) neglects to discuss the operation with Elias. So distracted is she that she neglects to tell him several other important facts, such as the selling of their house. After all, in order for the mother to come to terms with her grief and move on from the loss, she would want to leave the house that (presumably) she and her husband would have bought together, where they raised their two children. The ghosts of their memory haunt her just as much as it does Elias, and we see her depressed state throughout the film as she stalks around the house, wearing an unfamiliar face, seeking to find meaning in her life during this period of transition. The dream sequence of her in the forest is symbolic of this battle she faces within herself.
Sure, there is plenty of evidence that the mother is a fake: the eyes, the twin, the favorite song that she can’t remember at a key moment. But this is a film that cares about what is unsaid as much as what is said, about body language and unspoken actions. Especially considering that the trailer appears to make the mother look like a horrible, roach-eating monster, once you strip that layer away what you have is a story about a mother and her son, coming to terms with both their individual and shared losses.
Part IV: The Twins & The Twist
The real tragedy of Goodnight Mommy, however, is how the characters’ inability to cope with their grief destroys their lives. Elias wants nothing more than to have his family be whole again; with the loss of his father and brother, the additional loss of his mother is something that his mind simply can’t handle. So his coping mechanism, meant to comfort him in this extreme time of loneliness and grief, instead manifests his suspicions and irrationalities in the form of Lukas, his brother and best friend. The water scene at the beginning isn’t a reenactment of how Lukas died; it’s a moment when Elias calls to his brother and he doesn’t respond, reminding him for one fleeting, horrible moment that yes, his brother is dead, a fact that once remembered is repressed for the rest of the film.
The mother meanwhile is so wrapped in her own grief that she fails to be a good parent to her child. No wonder Elias goes full Norman Bates by the end of the movie; during the surgery (a time, no doubt, full of anxiety and questions for an 8-year-old) she completely abandons him, sending deliveries of microwavables but offering him no human contact, and no way to deal with his grief. Even when she returns home, it is her own lack of involvement with her son that leads to his suspicion, and eventually her death. We see Elias disagree with Lukas several times throughout the movie (especially when it comes to the torture sequences), so he clearly still has a moral center, even at his most delusional. Unfortunately, the mother has no idea how to properly communicate with her son, which only makes Lukas more vengeful and sociopathic.
This is not a movie about a big plot twist – most viewers can figure out what the “twist” is going to be within the first ten minutes of the movie – but instead is about how the characters interact when faced with a major challenge in their relationship, and whether or not they can reconcile their differences before their fears and insecurities tear their family apart. It’s actually a brilliant move by the directors: instead of relying on the twist to heighten an otherwise mediocre film (we’re looking at you, M. Night), the twist is revealed right away as dramatic tension so that the audience can focus on what’s really important: the characters, and their story.
Anyway, here’s a video of a pig enjoying a belly rub.
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