This review may contain spoilers.
Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut The Babadook does for the mother/son relationship what Gone Girl did for the husband/wife dynamic; picks at it, stretches it to breaking point and wraps it up in an engrossing genre experience. In truth this summary is really quite lazy; there’s a fair bit being discussed in Kent’s film (see also the ramifications of repressed grief and the sometimes throttling hand of unacknowledged depression). None of this is approached with any particular subtlety, but the manner in which Kent tackles her themes is superbly accomplished.
We’re in suburban Southern Australia. It’s nearly seven years since Amelia (Essie Davis) gave birth to her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) and lost her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear) on the same day. Oskar died violently in a car accident getting Amelia to the hospital. She’s struggled as a single mother, wrestling the constant needs of a dependent with the need to deal with the emotional turmoil of such a fierce and painful transition in her life. One suspects, for the sake of Samuel, she has compartmentalised those negative emotions in an effort to spare him the pain. Putting them in the basement, if you will.
Nevertheless when we meet the two of them things are not going well. Samuel is acting aggressively and anti-socially; building strange weapons (which, admittedly, he has a knack for), demanding constant attention and scaring both his mother and his young peers with talk of sinister forces that will definitely get them all. The matter is compounded when a spooky pop-up book ‘Mister Babadook’ appears from nowhere on the bedroom shelf. A beautifully morbid creation designed by Alex Juhasz (I want a copy – surely this is a merchandising no-brainer?), the book tells of a creepy monster lurking in the shadows that you can only see if you know where to look. As the pages turn they become increasingly sinister, and Samuel latches onto the tale, much to Amelia’s despair. Disturbed by it, Amelia throws the book away.
Yet, as is often the case in horror, inanimate objects have a habit of sticking around. ‘Mister Babadook’ makes its way back into the house, while Samuel is pulled out of school and Amelia grows more and more aggrieved. The Babadook grows claustrophobic as portals to the outside world grow few and far between. With nowhere else to roam, Kent’s film becomes a hothouse of ratcheting psychological traumas. The opening of the picture suggests we need to talk about Samuel, but really we need to talk about Amelia.
As the seemingly supernatural menace of ‘Mister Babadook’ makes itself known, Kent’s film essentially overplays its hand. The final pages of the book reveal themselves and detail the downward spiral Amelia is on, reflecting that the true menace to the two of them is not without but within. Kent has made fantasy out of a very real, very sinister possibility; Amelia’s depression and suppressed grief is about to combust. Samuel and the family dog are in serious danger. Like a matriarchal reflection of The Shining, we’re left with half the film’s running time ticking by toward events that seem oppressive and inevitable. And Samuel doesn’t have the whole of The Overlook to hide in.
As such The Babadook eschews the jump scares and confrontational nastiness of much of modern commercial horror in favour of something genuinely insidious. It may not run on surprises (for the most part), but Kent’s film succeeds remarkably because the audience is led to fear the worst. The breaks don’t work, and there’s nothing the viewer can do to steer this vehicle to safety. The journey becomes thrilling because, shit, you can’t stop it.
Horror is always strongest when the antagonistic element resonates as a psychological or sociological metaphor. Kent’s manifestation of Amelia’s deeply troubled mindset is barely masked at all, making a lot of The Babadook seem, potentially, heavy-handed. Yet one senses that Kent has no interest in being subtle about things here and wants to address the matter. In which case her film is a success, especially at the end. Playing against type for the much of the genre (fittingly, considering her subject matter) there is no definitive win here. Kent has the smarts to let her finale thrive on a sense of compromise (not to mention a sense of humour) with the ongoing hope that we can, eventually, improve ourselves, even if damage has most certainly been done.
Praise also ought to go to the production design team here. Like Juhasz’ book, they have cast the stage for this story in the grim monotone of mourning. Even Samuel’s walls and bed sheets are hewn in shades of black and grey. Colour is rare to find in this film. Again, it’s bold visual hand-holding for the viewer, but it serves Kent’s purpose, aesthetically making you wonder if this isn’t the kind of thing a more grounded Tim Burton might attempt if he had any original ideas at this point.
Regardless, Kent’s direction is assured to a fault, far more than one might expect from a debut feature. The film is crisp, clean, almost clinical in its editing. It’s a modern piece of work through and through, yet it manages to feel timeless thanks to it’s universal themes.
Is it perfect? No. Tough as it is to say, there’s a mismatch between the leads here. Essie Davis is incredible, bringing in one of the year’s most transformative performances. Noah Wiseman, however, is betrayed by his inexperience, and at times it seems as though Kent is pushing him to win the race for most-annoying-child-performance when all the other contestants have been sent to the naughty step. I don’t like picking on the kids (that’s the official line, anyway), but Wiseman’s Samuel makes the first act of this film especially difficult to get through. The intent may well be to make the viewer sympathise with Davis’ harangued Amelia. It works. While genre fans looking for serious scares may come away disappointed that Kent’s primary focus is on the message rather than a visceral experience. This too may well explain the sense of deja vu in the general set up, if not the execution.
Even so, in a less-than-vintage year for horror, The Babadook stands as 2014’s standout entry as far as I’ve seen, and is well worth investigation if you like your chills with a little substance and a modicum of depth.