2022’s Goodnight Mommy fails to find and replicate the nuance of the original, delivering only shallow ugliness in its stead.
Actress Naomi Watts is no stranger to starring in English-language remakes of critically acclaimed foreign films, most notably Michael Haneke’s Westernized take on his own Funny Games. Unfortunately, Watts is also quite at home in starring in considerably lesser works, and those two worlds come crashing together in Goodnight Mommy, director Matt Sobel’s take on Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s 2014 thriller of the same name. That original ranks as one of the best horror films of the 21st century, a stunning portrait of the devastating effects of grief, trauma, and guilt, one in which the process of recovery is revealed to be a violent and ugly affair from which survival can prove impossible. Sobel’s version is certainly not that, although the strain with which it attempts to be in its final ten minutes provides more than a few unintentional chuckles. Put quite simply, 2022’s Goodnight Mommy is a ghastly affair, one that would be deemed awful even if it wasn’t being unfairly compared to the film that inspired it, although “inspired” must be used loosely here. The original did indeed have a Big Twist, but Franz and Fiala purposely made it obvious from the opening moments, helping to inform the actions of the characters and adding another layer of emotional complexity that ultimately served to suffocate its protagonists, and rend viewers’ hearts in the process. 2022’s version exists solely for that twist, going out of its way to obscure facts and information for a big Gotcha! moment that feels completely unearned, and does little in the way of providing depth for the previous mind-numbing 80 minutes.
Watts stars as the titular mother, an aging film actress who is recovering from plastic surgery in a secluded house in the countryside. Her twin sons, Elias (Cameron Crovetti) and Lucas (Nicholas Crovetti), have been sent by their father to stay with her for the week, even as she spends her days adorned in a white nylon mask that obscures her features, save for the eyes and mouth. Indeed, this actress looks like she just stepped off the set of a modern-day retelling of Eyes Without a Face, and the boys are rightfully frightened by her appearance. It doesn’t help that she spends her days watching television and drinking wine, content to wile away in a drug-induced stupor that leaves little meaningful time with her two sons. Before long, the boys become convinced that this masked woman is not their real mother but an imposter, citing such incriminating evidence as suspicious phone calls, the disposal of the children’s drawings, overturned pictures, and an apparent eye color change. There is also the matter of the mother’s behavior, which is beyond inexcusable, and includes physical violence and, at one point, waterboarding. It should also be noted that this movie includes a scene where Elias secretly watches his mother as she partially strips, rubs her body, and dances seductively to Edwyn Collins’ A Girl Like You. Later, the boys inadvertently listen to their mother masturbating due to a concealed walkie talkie under her bed, grunts and moans filling the soundtrack. (This quite gross detail was not something that a remake needed to add, to be clear.)
The biggest problem with 2022’s Goodnight Mommy — yes, there is an even bigger one than the Collins scene, amazingly — is that the titular mommy is painted as a two-dimensional monster, one who is constantly yelling at and berating her children. At one point the woman grabs a crowbar and attempts to bust through the children’s locked door, as if this film could withstand comparisons to The Shining, although Sobel does later reenact the final scene from Under the Skin, which is… an audacious choice. The original portrayed the mother character as a complete blank slate, one onto which both the boys — and, by extension, the viewer — could project whatever was necessary, in the process lending an air of mystery that purposely left a nagging sense of questioning. Watts’ mother, on the other hand, deserves nothing more than a visit from Child Protective Services and the complete removal of her offspring from her home. It doesn’t help that the film seemingly tries to forgive her actions come the climax, the combination of surgery and trauma proving more than any individual could handle apparently. And Sobel, who recently helmed the highly derivative but not entirely unentertaining Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor, does nothing of visual interest with the proceedings, just delivering a lot of clean white spaces and soft lighting that is obviously expected to do the heavy lifting. Watts is committed as ever, but we’ve unfortunately now reached the point where her very appearance in a project implies its usually subpar quality. (Are these really the only roles being offered to the actress who gave one of the all-time great film performances in Mulholland Drive?) Where the original Goodnight Mommy was so memorable because it somehow managed to find and capture both the stunning beauty and beating heart within the violent chaos of its horrific actions, this one, by contrast, can only find ugliness. America, fuck yeah.
You can stream Matt Sobel’s Goodnight Mommy on Amazon Prime Video beginning on September 16.