Let's Discuss The Ending Of 'Goodnight Mommy'
We promised it last week, and now here it is, Rebecca Pahle and Kristy Puchko’s down and dirty digging in of Goodnight Mommy’s twisted and terrifying finale.
SPOILERS FOR THE END OF GOODNIGHT MOMMY. People who complain about spoilers in comments will be banhammered!
After much cruelty and mounting suspicion, the twins tie “Mother” (as she’s credited in the film) to her bed and being an unholy inquisition demanding to know where their real mother is. Things turn to torture. They superglue her mouth shut to keep her quiet. When it comes time to feed her, Elias uses manicure scissors to cut through the hardened glue, and accidentally clips her lip resulting in spurts of blood.
The boys realize she’s wet herself, and free her temporarily so she might clean herself. She takes this moment to escape, running out the door onto the patio only to be tripped on a trap. She falls face first on cement, the sound of her teeth cracking resounding before the film cuts to black. She waits up bound once more, this time in the living room, surrounded by candles and flanked by her sons.
Elias demands she confess what she’s done to their mother. He says his real mother would know what Lukas was doing, which is holding a candle threateningly close to the curtains. Mother cries out that she’ll play along. She’ll pretend Lukas lives, and didn’t die in some unexplained accident. The twins ignore her, and Elias pushes Lukas’s hand to the curtains setting the room and their mother ablaze.
The final shot is the boys and their mother reunited in a sunny field, looking right into camera.
END OF SPOILERS.
Now let’s dig in.
THE TORTURE SEQUENCE
Kristy: Let’s begin with what for many is a breaking point in the film - the torture scene. When I saw it, everyone was squirming, and one critic later admitted they had considered leaving altogether during it.
Rebecca: It was absolutely difficult to watch. And, if memory serves, it’s not just one scene either, where you get through it and it’s done. The entire final third of the film is incredibly brutal. The trailer scared the crap out of me, so I’m thinking going in, “I am not going to be able to handle this movie.” And then the first two-thirds aren’t really all that bad, so I’m thinking, wow, this is OK, And then the last third is some scary shit. The movie takes a complete turn.
Kristy: But it’s not brutal in that Hostel/Saw sort of way of “look what we can get away with.” Like, I don’t think the directors want us to relish in the torture. I think it’s meant to essentially break the audience.
Rebecca: Yeah, I don’t think so either. A friend referred to it as “torture porn,” and while it’s definitely brutal, I didn’t think of it that way while I was watching it.
Kristy: Our sympathies are with Elias and Lukas for the first 2/3 of the film. But in this scene, your alliance begins to switch. You’re forced to see them in a new light, not as victims but as villains.
Rebecca: Absolutely. The first 2/3 are from their perspective—who is this person, and what has she done with their mother. And then you realize… wait, the mom’s fine. Everything she said and did had an explanation. There’s nothing supernatural going on AT ALL, which is so much more horrifying.
Kristy: Well, before we get to that reveal, does the torture sequence go too far?
Rebecca: I don’t think so. I mean, your mileage may vary, but I think its very effective. It’s so much more scary and disturbing that everything’s grounded in reality—these two boys (well, one boy) are torturing their mom—than what we thought was happening, which is your run-of-the-mill demon possession or whatever.
Kristy: What’s remarkable is that as far as gore, it’s pretty tame. There’s little blood. But it’s the protracted way the torture is presented. And then how she almost gets free that’s so horrifying. The violence isn’t gleeful, but it is impactful. So as hard to watch as it was, I think it’s used masterfully and its scares are earned.
Rebecca: Agreed. The scene with the glued-shut mouth is NOTHING compared to what you see in most other horror films. And yet you could FEEL everyone in the audience lock up when it happened.
Kristy: The sound design, which was so sharp and loud from the hissing of those damned cockroaches to the snipping of those scissors helps as well. It feels violent even when we’re not seeing violence.
Rebecca: I interviewed the directors, and we talked about the aesthetics of the film—how the first 2/3 is very heavily shadowed and almost has a fantasy feel, because it’s from the kids’ perspective and that’s the story they think they’re in and then the last third is bright and open and documentary style. Like, “No, all theories aside, this is what’s really going on.” It’s very unflinching
Kristy: I mentioned that in my review, the beginning feels like a modern fairy tale. But to avoid spoilers, I left out how the torture scene picks a totally disparate aesthetic. So let’s get into THE TWIST.
Rebecca: Wait! Wait! I want to mention the Red Cross scene first because I love it SO MUCH.There’s this one bit where two Red Cross workers come to the house and ask to speak to the mom, who’s tied up upstairs. Because they’re looking for donations. And the mom can hear them downstairs but can’t yell (tape over her mouth), and the Red Cross workers—who’re dealing with Elias—expect that something is up, but they’re really not sure. And it’s this oddly funny scene in the midst of all this emotional and psychological carnage. It was a funny scene, right? I’m not just fucked in the head?
Kristy: It is!
Rebecca: It was this odd thing of “…I’m really not sure I’m supposed to be laughing at this, but I definitely am.”
Kristy: It’s the real world invading the boy’s fantasy that we don’t yet know is a fantasy. It made me feel conflicted, not only because I was laughing at such a fucked up scenario, but also because I wasn’t sure who I was rooting for anymore, Mother or the boys.
Rebecca: It ratcheted up the tension off the charts. And those fucking stupid Red Cross employees, oh my God. Elias essentially pays them off to leave. It reminds me of the bed scene in Kubrick’s Lolita, where Humbert’s trying to unfold this cot in a hotel and it keeps collapsing on him. This odd little comedy interlude to give the audience breathing room before shit goes back to being awful
ANYWAY THE TWIST, yes?
Kristy: Yes, when did you realize Lukas was dead?
Rebecca: I knew something was up fairly early on. I didn’t know if Lukas was dead or it was a Tyler Durden Elias-making-someone-up-in-his-head situation, but there were clues early on that something was definitely up with the kids. Like the way the mother had this really odd grudge against one of them but not the other.
Kristy: That’s what kills me. There’s clues throughout that it’s an unreliable narrator, like how the boys’ nightmares or dreams look the same as everything else. How adults never respond to Lukas.
Rebecca: The mom saying “don’t listen to your brother. Don’t listen to your brother.”
Kristy: Mention of “the accident.” I mean, even the opening is the two boys running through the woods, then Elias loses Lukas and calls out for him.
Rebecca: Oof. And you know what gets me.This movie will be such a good rewatch. Because there’s this tiny little scene, early on, part of the montage where you see the boys having this happy, glorious summer before their mom comes home, where Elias is laying on a raft on the lake, and he’s a little bit scared and calling for Lukas, whom he can’t see. And you think “Oh, Lukas is gonna pull a Jaws and turn his float over.” But, in retrospect… nope. That’s how Lukas died. (Not that exact scene, because the timing doesn’t work out, but Lukas totally drowned in that lake.)
Kristy: I realized maybe thirty seconds before mother says Lukas is dead what the deal was. And I let out a low groan, because I was so filled with dread and also so stunned I hadn’t realized it sooner. But the film masks it beautifully with the tone - it feels like a dark fairy tale, so you take a lot of its style for granted. Even the original title offers a clue: Ich Seh Ich Seh translates to “I See I See.”
Rebecca: Exactly. From the beginning, it’s a weird atmosphere—these boys left alone in a house in the middle of the forest with no one else around—so you’re willing to go with a lot. I read that’s what they call the “I Spy” game in Austria, like “I Spy With My Little Eye” something red or whatever.
Kristy: Oooooo. That’s creepy too. Like this is a game. Elias is playing to keep his brother “alive.”
Rebecca: What I love about the ending SO MUCH is that absolutely everything the kids thought was evidence of their mom being replaced by something evil has a completely rational explanation
Kristy: Totally. And yeah, his mom is acting like an asshole when she comes home. But the stuff that could be read as body horror/doppelganger danger is actually just an aging woman desperately trying to hang onto her looks and sense of youth.
Rebecca: “My mole was removed? The plastic surgeon did that. The picture of my doppelganger? Just someone I knew who looked like me? A drastic change in personality? One of my sons just died, and the other one is still talking to him.”
Kristy: By the end, I feel for her and for Elias. They are both in so much pain, but their inability to connect to each other over it spells their doom. The end is scary as hell, but also heartbreaking.
Rebecca: It’s Babadook-y, all about the relationship between mothers and sons. Sometimes things go well, and you end up saving your son. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do and the son ends up torturing you. Whoops.
Kristy: Yes, I mentioned Babadook in my review, but didn’t want to give away just how similar they are. What a fucked up double-feature those would be.
Rebecca: Man. You’d need to put some happy-go-lucky Disney in there, just as a palate cleanser.
Kristy: Nope. All bleak mother-son psychological horror. WALLOW IN THE PAINS!
Is there anything else you want to say before we get into the final shot and what it might mean?
Rebecca: Only “AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH,” which sums up my feelings pretty well. Oh, and there was this one shot where a picture hanging on the wall—a life-sized photo of this shadow-y woman—lined up EXACTLY with Elias (I think) so it looks like this shadow-y woman has her hand on his shoulder. And it CREEPED ME THE HELL OUT. Did you see that ?!
Kristy: No. Now I HAVE to go again I guess.
Kristy: So the very ending. It’s a matter of debate as to whether the fire kills Elias too, or just his mom.
Rebecca: There are two interpretations here. See, when I first saw it, I thought Elias was alive, and the mother joining him means that he is now hallucinating her in addition to Lukas. And I’ve talked to other people and they assumed Elias died, because the field where he was hiding caught on fire.
Kristy: Yes, I’m in the latter group.
Rebecca: And when I interviewed the directors *adjusts monocle*, they said it was meant to be intentionally ambiguous. Like, I asked “Sooo… did I miss something? Which is it?,” because I thought I was so traumatized I might have missed some clue, and they were very clear that that was not a question they intended to answer. The question is, is that a cop-out? I don’t think so, but I know a lot of people scoff and eye-roll at the “ambiguous ending” conceit, which can, after all, be a bit overused
Kristy: I think you can definitely make an argument for either reading. I mean, if he can imagine a brother, he can imagine the field. And it’s complicated by the opening, which is a similar scenario from a movie, where a mother embraces her kids in a field and sings.
Rebecca: I think the “he’s alive” ending is so much creepier, because it means he killed his mother and it has no effect on him AT ALL. Like, it just folds into his existing psychological issues. No regret, no remorse.
Kristy: But what’s more interesting to me is that it doesn’t matter if you think Elias is dead or alive to ponder: is it a happy ending? Like if they’re all dead, and reunited—is that happy? If Elias is living in a fantasy where his family is restored—is that happy?
Rebecca: Oooh, that’s a good question. It’s not happy for the damn mother!
Kristy: It’s a question I don’t have an answer for. And that’s why I think I like this movie so much. I keep chewing on it, and it doesn’t get old.
Rebecca: So, so rewatchable.
Kristy: Maybe when it hits VOD we can do a watch-along video.
Rebecca: Lights on. SO many lights.
Kristy: All the lights.
Rebecca: All the lights in the world
Kristy: No twins allowed.
Goodnight Mommy is now in select theaters.