A basic screenwriting rule, at least for traditional, 3-act features, is, if you introduce something, use it. That can be Chekhov’s gun, a new character, a location. Goodnight Mommy doesn’t give a damn about that rule and is much the better for it.
Produced by a favorite of mine, Ulrich Seidl (Paradise: Faith, Paradise: Love), the film has some of the wide, clean, static shots that he likes, but is much more the work of directors Severin Fiala and Antonia Franz. This movie is creepy. And the first 2/3 of it are breathtakingly beautiful, so mysterious, and so unnerving.
Elias and Lukas (Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz) are twin brothers who suspect that their mother (Susanne Wuest), recently returned from surgery and wrapped in bandages, may not actually be their mother.
About that screenwriting rule: the beginning of Fiala and Franz’s film shows the brothers playing all around their house – a solitary compound. They go into a dark cave, find what looks to be human bones and skulls, and continue on their merry way. What American viewer wouldn’t watch that scene and expect the location to return? It feels so telegraphed: “the climax will end there.” But we never see it again. That’s a great thing in Goodnight Mommy which is, at least for the first hour, more interested in building a sense of foreboding than offering concrete plot evidence.
When the film decides to move into something less vague it falters just a bit, with a twist that’s unnecessary (really: just totally lose the twist and keep everything the same and this movie, while more enigmatic, has something).
A lot of Goodnight Mommy reminds me of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The twins, the isolated location, the threat of violence that gradually escalates. Aldrich’s film had the better twist, in part because its was a twist that changed how the characters were interpreted, while Fiala and Franz’s, though adding a neat layer of guilt, is fun for the amount of time it takes to think back on the previous 90 minutes and then loses steam.
That said, even when Goodnight Mommy turns from eerie tension to on-screen violence it’s still pretty captivating. There’s a lot of emphasis on interiors vs. exteriors – the stark, cleanliness of the house vs. the raw forest outside. There’s probably a metaphor there. The simple design of Mother’s bandages remind of Eyes Without a Face and is chilling. Fiala and Franz also get some nice work out of a camera that frequently frames Mother from behind, the side, in extreme reflected close-up, or otherwise obscured.
Sicario is pretty gruesome and Villeneuve doesn’t shy away. The opening scene – no spoilers at all here, even though it’s the beginning of the film – shows some grotesque violence in close-up…and then returns to it again and again. It’s not only a narrative opening, but also a way for Villeneuve to set his own stage: get ready, because I’m not going to blink.
The story of drug gangs, the FBI, and the border between the US and Mexico is harrowing and well-acted. Benicio Del Toro steals the show as Alejandro, but the entire cast is strong.
There’s a scene that basically marks the end of the first act in Sicario. If I had stills I’d try doing a closer read. It takes place at the US-Mexico border and it’s some of the best tension I’ve seen in awhile. It’s just good writing, good acting, and a well-placed camera (including, in particular, an angle looking into the car of a gang member which intentionally frames his hands out, and another with Emily Blunt in the foreground where some serious background action happens).
Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins return to two strategies throughout the film: big, aerials – including a montage of them going into Juarez that is chilling – that break momentarily from the action, and really tight ECU inserts, especially of curtains. These are consistent visual motifs and they speak to the simultaneous grandeur and intimacy of the film, one its many strengths.
Sicario isn’t a happy film. None of Villeneuve’s really have been, but this one disturbed me more than others.