Movie Review: The Babadook
Director: Jennifer Kent
Reviewed: 20 May 2015
I don't think I can ask for much more than the sleek, terrifying, ninety-three minute long film The Babadook: it captivates and moves at a quick pace through very dark material, offering genuine scares and chills with its fresh ideas. Amelia, a young mother (Essie Davis), struggles after losing her husband in a car accident while driving to the hospital to deliver their son Samuel. Flash forward ahead, Samuel grows up into the precocious, slightly dangerous, and often annoying six-year-old who creates dangerous devices, studies old magic tricks, and makes life increasingly difficult for his mom. The eponymous creature of the title appears via a mysterious children's book that neither remembers buying, but once Amelia starts reading The Babadook to Samuel, it is obviously not appropriate with its violent imagery, threatening pronouncements, its character's long, sharp knives for fingers, outstretched and reaching. Things go from bad to worse, as you can imagine, and the book that cannot be destroyed becomes an omnipresent force in their decaying, rotting house as both mother and son fight for their lives and souls.
There's much to like here. Davis is a revelation as the embattled, exhausted Amelia, fighting herself as much as any outside force. She inhabits both the chippy, faux-cheerful Amelia who tries to fit in at her affluent sister's house party, while also showing the world-weariness of being a caretaker at a retirement home during the day. It is Kent's point to show Amelia being stretched by both work and home, serving as caretaker to all and neglecting herself. The horror comes in bursts with a slow, building intensity, and Kent is wise to use darkness and effects sparingly. I watched the film in three longer chunks, which probably lessens the hold that it had over me, and I was thankful for that. I think that even its lean running time would have had me completely worn out at the end of one sitting.
What scares me? Sharks that can see my entire body while I can only imagine them during dips in the ocean. People in masks with dark intent. Clowns talking to children through sewer grates (thanks, Stephen King), and things that are otherwise incongruous and strange. And a children's book that seems to come alive amidst the isolation of this parent trying to do it all alone is now added to that list. The Babadook should not be as effective and as scary as it is, but Jennifer Kent's work is a masterpiece of sound architecture with its otherworldly whirls and clicks, special effects that seem more sleight-of-hand or magic-like than CGI (except for one sequence), a tour-de-force performance from the great Essie Davis as well as a brilliant child performance from Noah Wiseman, a steady pace which keeps building, and a very strong ending that resonates far after the last frame stops. It is different than the standard horror film; it more closely resembles Take Shelter, the 2011 Jeff Nichols film which featured Michael Shannon as a father trying to protect his family from oblivion (or just his growing mental illness). I think that The Babadook should continue to get more attention and viewers, as its ideas and world-building indicate a thoughtful and daring new vision from director Jennifer Kent. Bravo.