Dress a punishing Austrian art film up like cat-and-mouse thriller, it's still Austrian, and anybody who's been following world cinema for the past decade or so knows what nihilistic vivacity that means. But I'll spare a kindly word for Goodnight Mommy, for cruel though it is, it's not just cruel. The genre trappings help out with that a lot; unlike e.g. the films of producer Ulrich Seidl, or some of the other usual suspects of the world's bleakest national cinema, writer-directors Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz aren't obviously trying to punish us for wanting our movies to be exciting and tense. And it is, at times, very exciting and tense.

It is also very clichéd, with a climactic twist so easy to out that I'm pretty close to certain that we're meant to have it figured out long in advance. At any rate, the way the film plays out when we know what it's up to is, I think, more subtle and rewarding than if we don't; it has an added dimension of horrifying, inescapable tragedy in its depiction of how the relationship between twin boys (Lukas & Elias Schwarz) and their mother (Susanne Wuest) goes to some alarmingly curdled extremes. The basic hook of the movie is scary and intense - what if you were a child and your mother came home a psychopath, her face all covered in bandages? - but foreknowledge turns it into something weirder and far more unsettling.

Still, this is not fresh material, and it has been done better: everything about it plays like a very similar and less effective remake of A Tale of Two Sisters. Not that this is in any way bad: the three actors who make up very nearly the entire human cast of the movie are superlative in their roles, Wuest imbuing her role with a mercurial rage that gives the Schwarz boys plenty of dark energy to play off of. And the young actors are, in turn, the driving engine of the whole movie, without whom the whole edifice would collapse. They bear the weight well: one of the commonest gestures the film makes is to fixedly train its attention on their faces, whether in close-up or frightfully isolated within the middle of a wide frame, and simply watch as they panic silently for the length of a nervily protracted long take.

There are many long takes, of course: this is a contemporary European art film. An Austrian film no less, which makes the austerity just that much more austere. It is a film in which the camera (under the care of cinematographer Martin Gschlacht) tends to set itself up to take in whole rooms, chilly ones and uncomfortably over-white. Even in high tension, this is relentlessly downbeat, which rather makes the tension more profound. It's not "fun", but it's the most addictive, watchable Austrian export in quite a long while, with a wicked precision about its depiction of family dysfunction that gives it some intelligence to go with its emaciating chills.