The Babadook (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
5Dec/142

The Babadook (2014)

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Amelia is a single mother to her troubled son Samuel.  One day she discovers a pop-up book that neither had seen before that tells the story of the Babadook, a gentleman monster who gets stronger the less you believe in him.  Amelia and Samuel become troubled with dark dreams and fleeting images of the monster.  Did they release the Babadook, or is something else wrong with their family?  The Babadook is writer / director Jennifer Kent's first feature film and stars Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman.

LET ME INSomething happened to me while I watched The Babadook that I don't think I've experienced in my thirty years on this earth.  It was about a third into the film when the tormented Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) go to a birthday party for Amelia's niece.  Amelia, huddled in a corner, tires of the passive-aggressive comments made by the other women at the party and verbally lashes out at them.  It's thoroughly satisfying, and then the camera cuts to Samuel.  He's up in a treehouse where he's being taunted more aggressively by his cousin then, after she goes one step too far in saying his father is dead because of him, he pushes his cousin out.

I felt a moment of satisfaction.  Here are two people using the tools at their disposal to fight back at the world that has put them down for so long.  Then the crashing realization comes when the camera cuts back to Amelia, we hear the scream of the girl after she fell, and the camera rushes out to find the girl bleeding and legs hurt badly.  She did not deserve this, and I was so caught up in this rush of vengeance that I felt ashamed - the same shame that Amelia feels when she sees what her son has done.

When I speak of empathizing with a film I usually am associating with pain, sadness, or elation.  I have rarely empathized with shame, disgust, or rage.  Jennifer Kent, with The Babadook, creates a work of art that has us empathize not with a noble struggle, but with the darkest impulses we wrestle with when it's supposed to be so easy to be responsible and carefree.  I was shaken by my response, and by the time The Babadook ended I had a greater understanding of what it really means to struggle with responsibility when you're all alone, and how difficult that is.

Performances

Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman create a tight, not quite functional, and complicated family with two of the best performances of the year.

What struck me the most about The Babadook is how effortlessly it moves between broad, special-effects laden horror and Amelia's initially quiet psychological breakdown that causes her to torment Samuel.  This builds in many brilliantly subtle in ways that build gradually through the film.  In that showdown at the birthday party Amelia is shot slightly to the center-left of the frame of the kitchen, while Samuel is to the far right of the frame in the tree house.  Amelia, from the left, assaults the space to her right with words, the implied implied space for Samuel.  She may not be yelling at him directly in this scene but the psychological effect with the editing is clear - she is losing her mind and blames her son.

Kent's screenplay deals with this fact in nightmares that are as beautiful as they are scary and in dialogue that is terrifyingly outspoken in Amelia's feelings about Samuel.  The frame loses control as Amelia does the same - lifting her up off the ground in a moment of temporary drug-induced sleep or blurring her body as she screams at the sight of the Babadook skittering across her ceiling.  What's scary about her words is that the influence of the Babadook lets her be viciously honest with Samuel.  As he is having one of his freakouts in the back of the car she turns and snarls, "Why can't you be normal!", or when he disrupts her nap because he's hungry and she growls, "If you're so hungry why don't you go eat shit?"

This isn't sensationalized dialogue that aims at pure shock value of a mother saying crude things to her child.  Kent's dialogue comes from a deep wound that is still raw to the world.  Amelia is a woman who lost her husband as soon as she gained her son and few in the world have sought to understand just what that did to her life or how it seems to have affected her son's development.  It is nasty because we are so trained by decades of cinema to see a mother as solely a benevolent force for her children and rarely allow her to speak honestly.  Amelia does and says evil things in The Babadook, but Kent does not put her so far into darkness that she becomes an abstract.  Her problems are real.

Jennifer Kent establishes Amelia's growing trouble with Samuel so subtly and steadily that the evil way she treats him has a horrifying logic to it.

Jennifer Kent establishes Amelia's growing trouble with Samuel so subtly and steadily that her evil has a horrifying logic behind it.

Kent, for all her excellent direction and writing, would not have been able to realize this terror without Davis and Wiseman's brave performances.  Davis taps into a dark and primal reservoir and only widens as Amelia falls further into the spell of the Babadook.  Toward the end of the film she becomes a vicious physical force, putting her body in great danger for the sole purpose of ending her torment.  Wiseman, only seven years old, has a role that is no less difficult or brave.  Samuel, divorced from the plot concerns, is a troubled child with a fierce intelligence that Wiseman lets shine in enthusiastic but scared bursts.

Then there's the nature of the Babadook itself, which will be the subject of some speculation for those lucky enough to watch the film.  He is brought to life in many ways, and never the same way twice.  Samuel's storybook that summons him pictures the creature as a rough sketch or some dark terror Edward Gorey might come up with.  But as the threat becomes more tangible the art becomes less distinct and more grotesque like a monster in a book illustrated by Stephen Gammell.  When he is finally corporeal his chattering sounds and jerky movement recall cockroaches because they are the true inheritors of the earth, after all.

The lingering threat of the Babadook remains even as the monster disappears from view.  Kent's last scenes are of bravery and comfort but keenly aware that the darkness within and around Amelia may drive her mad once more.  I finished The Babadook certain that I had witnessed a rare work of frightening brilliance.   Now, days later, I still have chills in my spine as I remember the creature with the tight smile and hear the steady creep of his voice.  The Babadook comes to close 2014 on a terrifying note.

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Tail - The BabadookThe Babadook (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Jennifer Kent.
Starring Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. great review! I thought this was well done as well. I really like how you mentioned how much the villain materialized and morphed into something else as the film progressed.

    • Thank you for the comment! I’d love to see the art and creature effects for this get some recognition because they were pivotal to creating that disturbing tone.


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