THE BABADOOK (2014)
reviewed by Audy Elliott
Cagey, irritable, burdened, heartfelt, tight, suppressing,
lurking, shrouded, sparse
Kent’s strong, smooth direction
Polished cinematography for independent film
Pitch perfect pacing
Multifaceted horror storytelling presentation
Layered dramatic visuals
Overly relied on built in horror movie troupes
WHAT THE MOVIE IS ABOUT
Six years after the violent death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis) is at a loss. She struggles to discipline her out of control 6 year-old, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), a son she finds impossible to love. Samuel's dreams are plagued by a monster he believes is coming to kill them both. When a disturbing storybook called 'The Babadook' turns up at their house, Samuel is convinced that the Babadook is the creature he's been dreaming about. His hallucinations spiral out of control and he becomes more unpredictable and violent. Amelia, genuinely frightened by her son's behavior, is forced to medicate him. But when Amelia begins to see glimpses of a sinister presence all around her, it slowly dawns on her that the thing Samuel has been warning her about may be real.
The Babadook, guided by the promising talent of its director, Jennifer Kent, is about the theme of challenges, and how one, when facing an suppressive challenge, reacts and possibly either overcomes it or succumbs to it. Kent, admitted that the more she went along the creative process, she found herself calling obvious attention to the fact that the script was turning into a horror movie, even though it wasn’t her initial intent. Kent wanted to focus on the theme of challenge by way of Amelia's character being a single mother, coping with the loss of her husband, and dealing with handling a young child on her own, while also maintaining a slippery handle of the truisms and stigmas of motherhood and the judgment a woman self-imposes on herself in trying to uphold to that social standard bearer. Kent treats Amelia’s experience metaphorically with the actual monster, “The Babadook.” It represents, subconsciously, what Amelia is experiencing between the loss of her soul mate: her spouse, the father to her child but the anger, resentment and frustrations that currently weigh her down in trying to deal with an unruly, but cute little shit of a son. There are real moments in the movie anchored by Essie Davis’ wonderful performance of Amelia, where you question if she really loves her son. Its very pliability is apparent upon the audience because of the richness and sympathy of Kent’s direction in capturing Amelia’s borderline hatred for Samuel. It’s not outright a given, but it’s lingering there for ample dissection.
Kent’s idea for The Babadook came from her original piece of work, a movie short, titled Monster which stars Kent, and basically is a rough draft outline to Babadook's final term paper. Kent displays a reverence and intelligence to horror genres and clearly knows how to handle suspense, with spare takes, drawn out simplistic but heavy terse atmosphere that lingers to delight, without the cheap gimmick of scare tactics or monsters jumping out to manipulate the audience. She self admittedly doesn’t play for cheap thrills and doesn’t portend her imagination by patronizing the audience. She gives the audience the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t hand-hold you in her world where its terrors forcefully fills up the blank space. Direction is given to us in a polished, sustainable manner where Davis solemnly entices your eye in a plain, understated, and rebuking but generous manner. There is a strong preexistence of wonderful collaboration between Kent and Davis. They have been personal friends for over 20 years, first meeting in acting class to professional colleagues and eventually good friends. This lasting relationship forms an easy energy where it’s obvious that Kent’s words are breathing life into the very lungs of Davis’ delivery. To a certain extent, it speaks of a superfluous lockstep creative symbioses that made Kurosawa/Mifune, Allen/Keaton or Von Sydow/Bergman successful - unifying cerebrally to where it comes across like something that is beyond authentic, something seemingly more natural. The most fascinating thing about The Babadook is how polished its lens and camera work is. For an independent movie there isn’t any cheap feeling, like something was slapped together, because there wasn’t an available resource to Kent’s disposal. It’s actually the opposite. Kent films this movie with a certain cinematic economy. It doesn’t come at a sacrifice to the overall feel of The Babaook but there is a production simplicity in which Kent knew what to focus on and how to carefully develop the world in which the characters inhabit. By filming this horror movie in pretty contained close framed settings, we are treated to beautiful effortlessness in how we are challenged by the characters and Mr. Babadook himself, once Kent decides how to carefully present them in unison. The house itself is devoid purposely of any color; it is suppressive, not allowing for any meritocracy to be given to Amelia no matter how hard she is kicking ass at being a loving, willing mother. Hallways are grays, the grays stuck grimly on the walls have even darker grays, and the muted tones shroud every move and placement the camera fixes itself on. Streams of light are suffocating at best, shining dimly, streaking seldom in the house as if it requires permission to be there in the first place. There isn’t any pop of color in sight, outside of Amelia’s bright blonde hair as it tresses down her head in a lingering frayed shock. Terror permeates through the house in a deep and dampened way trapping both mother and son but aren’t aware of it – home sweet home, it comes across more of toleration and a necessity of limited means than they both are gripped by it, defying logic in leaving it. The house is characteristic and by way of extension embodies Amelia’s emotions signifying how she feels loss internally as each of Kent’s mise-en-scènes builds dread to a distillable intensity from one quick cut to the next. Kent’s biggest attribute towards this rewarding film, is how she is presenting the story is a multifaceted way, in which she doesn’t dictate what vantage point or whose sympathy you are supposed to follow or connect with. You start off sympathizing with Amelia, for having to deal with the son; feeling as if this movie is going to be like Lynne Ramsay’s eerie “We need to talk about Kevin” presenting itself as typical mother can’t figure out her son’s troubled behavior. However, this film switches its point of view, forcing you to sympathize both characters as they are reacting to the possible “Babadook,” to finally, your sympathy is toward Samuel, and his arc once Amelia finally has had enough. What separates this movie from other genre films is the complexities in which the characters are treated. They don’t fit archetypes and are developed by standard templates, but there is a realism of right and wrong, good or bad with how the actors, especially Davis, portray themselves. Kent was self aware enough to know that she didn’t want two dimensional characters. Davis was gifted with a wonderful character arc, starting the beginning of the film differently from where she ends up. In particular, Samuel, played by newcomer Noah Wiseman (in his first starting role) is raw; remitting an eventual likability as the movie progresses. He starts off as a child that you just want to throw off a bridge. Davis convinces of us this. You can tell Kent let Wiseman loose and told him to be as convincingly obnoxious as a kid. You can understand Amelia’s declining affection and possible last remnants of love dying through each establishing scene, but no matter how terrible the kid is, Kent doesn’t leave him out to dry.
Kent, who recently won the New York Film Critics Circle as “Best First Feature” with this movie, handles the technical side with assurance and aplomb. She has a talent with carefully crafting suspense, with minimal nuanced payoffs and delivery, and her build up to the monster, regardless of expectations carries weight, and isn’t overbearing to where its preposterous, nor limp enough to where its weakly dismissive. Scenes are quickly moving. The movie never wrongfully lingers or overstays its welcome in expository moments, and holds tight, inching tension and fear with the right amount of hesitancy knowing that its building towards a payoff or if not the payoff, the layered impression will attribute to a grander one later in the film. She knows what she is doing with subject, with the transparency of the psychology of Amelia, and the guilt that haunts all parents, let alone mothers – just this movie is pumped up with a monster that is neither an antagonist, nor a fallacy – its real. The only underlining question is, how real? And who in the film decides if it is or not? We are never given an answer, and that is what separates this movie from other bloated, self induced mainstream retreads.
Mr. “Dook” or “Baba”, is revealed from time to time, and the thought of him is terrifying because Davis and Wiseman do a convincing job of demonstrating their collective self-doubt (Davis) to outright fear (Wiseman) and vice versa. The monster, in an obtuse way, attacks the characters psyche in which to Kent’s intention is for Amelia and Samuel to act out of the norm, and grow as a result of the consequences. The Babadook is symbolic of everything that was wrong after Amelia’s husband’s death, and what is still wrong because of it: Mr. Babadook, is an emotion, a mood, a tonal crutch in which sorrow can manifest itself. This idealism of The Babadook is as jarring as the deep blood red hardcover book it’s sourced from. Amelia tries several ways to get rid of the book, but each time it comes back reassembled like a dyslexic arts and craft project. Once she decides to burn it, though, is when things get rough, and the movie takes off.
Sometimes the movie would fall by the over indulged troupe-ish hallmarks that come fixated with the sub-genre of supernatural horror movies. These clichés neither added to the movie nor punished it to a shameful pander to hard core horror buffs. At times the built in elements would smack to glaring referential sheepish quality, as if Kent said “I need this in the movie, because this is what’s typical in horror movies, and my movie is a horror movie.” Lets run down the checklist. Scary two story town house? Check. Traumatizing event with husband’s death? Check. Her son wearing a school uniform? Check. Scary nosy elderly but lovable neighbor that knows too much on what goes in Amelia’s house and is friends with Samuel? Check. Scary book that somehow Samuel owns that isn’t designated as a gift receipt item? Check. Mother’s job working at a retirement home with despondent almost comatose senior citizens? Check. Mother watching scary retro programs at night succumbing to insomnia like Requiem for a Dream? Check! I admit, it was all done well, and fit within the narrative of the movie, but the movie isn’t constricted by these elements, nor didn't have to fall back on them to effectively set the mood. The screenwriting, direction and acting more than did that while also anchoring the conception of a thrilling monster exemplifying the movie’s gratitude towards the audience and the genre it represents.
For all of the goodwill brought by this movie and to achieve so much winningly on such a small scale, the ending was real lackluster and unsatisfying. It didn’t betray anything that preceded it in the movie, but it also didn’t punctuate that fear and persuasion that Kent so diligently built up. It was too hallmark in its treatment, but did leave a resolution – just not one that I particularly cared for, but one nevertheless. Personally, it’s the ending that separated this movie from great, new age classics, doing for horror movies like The Raid: Redemption did for action flicks. This movie doesn’t even come close, but it’s so smart in its message and interwoven layering and the foundation was built on excellent direction in which the movie leads you to every corner and crevice of itself that you don’t know where you’re being led and you don't mind it. This is all forgivable regardless of how its ends because the industry with horror movies in particular are so devoid of any intelligence. Once something like this comes out, and comes out with such a small economical force in which the simple premise allowed for Kent’s daring aggression to meet the audience who want to digest anything remotely chilling regardless of whether its excellence is displayed for only three fourths of the movie.
This scene is great because it exemplifies everything you need to know about this film: 1. The source of how The Babadook is introduced to the audience; 2. How the book itself sets the tone and is a great precursor on what to expect in the latter part of the movie; 3. How Samuel is an innocent little boy, sweet, just overbearing and 4. How the mother is processing everything that her son is warning her from the very beginning. You see Amelia’s concern not only as a parent but its representational in this scene on how she is finally giving The Babadook power, by believing in it, cautioned by it when it’s the last thing she needs to deal with. Davis does a wonderful job of trying to handle the situation, managing her own concerns along with her son’s troubled reaction to this book while also allowing us in on her character becoming affected by the sheer audacity of unnerving trouble presented on each treacherous page.
I appreciate a good horror film but it’s not one of my favorite genres I naturally lean towards. However, I do hold dear to some movies that carry a dramatic gravitas busting through its horror movie category, and defining themselves on their own terms and conditions of how they want to be viewed and identified – like The Exorcist, Psycho or The Shining. Yes, they all have horrific, terrifying elements but they possess that extra cinematic power that separates them from the pack. Does The Babadook do this? Not really, but that doesn’t mean its desire to be put in the conversation can’t be held - it most certainly can. From Kent’s fascinating treatment, to her knowledge of touchstones of its genre to confidently delivering her vision by crafting wonderful fully realized character arcs and intricate layered storytelling, this movie is a terrifying punch in the face. Even with its lackluster ending, this movie still holds up and mostly delivers on its sinister promise of one part monster allegory to showcasing a woman’s torment of the maternal pressures of a single parent. Once you’re finished giving this movie a well deserved look you won’t want to get rid of this remarkable Babadook.
3 out of 4