Director: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, Barbara West, Ben Winspear
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 11/28/14 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 28, 2014
We have a tendency to view emotions as tangible forces. It's not necessarily an act of personifying them but certainly of indirectly giving them a quality of being capable of causing some physical reaction within us. We'll say, for example, that sadness rips the heart in twain or squeezes the mind. The Babadook imagines grief as a monster in a top hat, waiting in the shadowy corners of the empty parts of rooms in a large house where life has pretty much stopped for a widowed mother.
The eponymous creature arrives uninvited at night, when thoughts naturally turn to the darkest parts of existence and the restrictive feeling of absence. Is the monster real, or is it just a creation of the woman's mind? Is it a symbol of her emotional state, which—after almost seven years of being a single mother and a widow—has become overwhelmed to the point that she can no longer function in her everyday life, or is it somehow a physical manifestation of those feelings?
It doesn't quite matter, because writer/director Jennifer Kent (her feature debut, adapting her short film from 2005) sees the monster as all of these things. Whether or not it actually exists is irrelevant, because, to the character, it is as real as the sadness that feels like it is breaking one's heart or squeezing one's mind. The creature is real to her, and that's the only thing that really matters.
Save for one shot, we never get a good look at Mister Babadook, a sinister being that seems formed out of shadow. It apparently springs into existence in the same way its image springs forth from the pages of a children's pop-up book, which is narrated by the dark thing as a companion that can never be dismissed once it finds a person.
It announces its appearance with a rumble followed by three knocks made by its clawed hands (The sounds give the monster its name), making nightly appearances until the person haunted by it goes mad. At that point, the Babadook promises it will show its victim its true form. There's no threat of death from the creature, but it promises that one will wish he or she were dead once the person sees what's beneath its already eerie outward appearance.
Needless to say, this is a horror film and a good one at that. The primary reason the film works so well as horror is the same reason it works as the study of a deteriorating mind: Kent's dedication to the subjective point of view of the protagonist.
Most, if not all, of the film features or takes on the viewpoint of Amelia (Essie Davis). She's the mother of 6-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a precocious but oftentimes irritating boy who is convinced that monsters are real things from which he must protect his mother. Despite his mother's objections, he builds contraptions, such as a catapult backpack and a crossbow, to fight off the beasts whenever they decide to appear. There's a nightly ritual of checking the boy's room for monsters, and Amelia is only more annoyed when the process turns out to have been for naught, as Samuel jumps into her bed after a nightmare, taking up all her space.
Amelia has been raising Samuel on her own since the moment he was born. Her husband died a sudden, violent, and, as we learn very late in the film, gruesome death in a car accident as the two were driving to the hospital for Amelia to give birth. She keeps all of her late husband's things in the basement behind a locked door. Her elderly neighbor (Barbara West) says the boy is like his father, so perhaps that's part of the reason it has become so difficult for Amelia to raise her son as of late.
All of those feelings are escalated when Samuel finds the storybook starring Mister Babadook (The book first suggests a threat against the boy but later provides foreshadowing to how far Amelia might go in her delirium). While the kid is scared of this newly discovered horror at first, eventually Amelia starts to hear rumbles from the darkened spaces of her bedroom, scratches at the door, and the scratchy whisper of a voice that seems to be coming from inside her head. Kent maintains an air of mystery about the nature of these strange occurrences. We see things from Amelia's perspective, as images become fuzzy from her lack of sleep and time seems to drag on or rush by in the feverish haze of insomnia.
The film's scares rely on the unknown, and Kent shows a great deal of restraint in avoiding the typical tactics of the genre (The exception, of course, is the one shot in which we see the Babadook, although the monster the surreal quality to its movements—akin to stop-motion animation—keep it from being a cheap scare). The film's buildup is dependent on shadows and obscured views, punctuated by subtle noises that pierce the otherwise silent atmosphere of the house.
Complementing the rising tension is Davis' performance, which begins a sympathetic portrait of tough truths about parenting and grief (that a parent will inevitability resent his/her child at some point and to varying degrees). Davis is smart enough to know not to give away the game too early, and her mounting fear helps to keep the film's scares grounded in some reality.
The epilogue of The Babadook provides some closure to the question of the monster, but Kent leaves its nature open for interpretation. There are no hard and fast rules for this monster, just as there are no hard and fast rules for how people process grief.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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