I write this from a chair in Nashville, TN, square in the buckle of the Bible Belt, a place where suggesting you don’t believe children are the most remarkable beings in the whole universe could get you a smack in the chops from any God-fearing man, never mind the baleful looks and tongue clucks of the womenfolk. Perhaps this is why I find The Babadook to be so remarkable, both in execution and subject matter, the bravery it shows in being honest. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Essie Davis is Amelia, a single mother, her husband dead for the entire seven years of her son’s life. Robbie, played by the surprisingly capable Daniel Henshall, is a queer duck, a child who has violent tendencies, especially when it comes to the monsters he believes hide in his wardrobe and beneath his bed. His aggressive behavior comes to a head following Amelia’s discovery of a new book, entitled “Mister Babadook,” which tells the inappropriate story of a monster who comes to prey on children when they sleep. Robbie fixates on the enigmatic Babadook, talking to the invisible creature and constructing weapons to defend his mother against the Babadook’s terrifying influence. As Robbie’s insistence on the Babadook’s existence grows more urgent, Amelia’s life and sanity unravel. To say more would be to give away some of the dark secrets at the heart of The Babadook, which I will not allow.
Much acclaim has been heaped upon writer/director Jennifer Kent’s freshman feature film, and with good reason. Kent tackles the complicated relationship between a mother and child and does not lean on the old tropes of the protective mother and adoring son, locked together against an uncaring world. Instead, she presents the viewer with the uncomfortable experience of watching a mother trying her damnedest to heal herself and keep her head above water while her son demands her almost-constant attention. Robbie’s outbursts of violence, while not unexplained, still apply unneeded and unwelcome pressure on Amelia, who clearly resents the complications Robbie provides. Even Amelia’s closest friend, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), suggests Amelia doesn’t like spending much time around her son, but such is the dynamic of a family. We often do not like our loved ones, but we do love them and want to keep them safe. And such is the nature of The Babadook, offering no easy answers to the question of what parental responsibility is, and what obligation we may carry for the well-being of our family at the loss of our own health and happiness.
As Amelia’s sense of self and reality fragments, Kent suggests such classic films as Polanski’s Repulsion, Kubrick’s The Shining and even a hint of the classic Jack Clayton film The Innocents. While viewers may be reminded of these movies, this is not a story that leans on references to other, better works, instead suggesting the same thematic elements at play. I was never entirely certain which way the movie was headed, and the conclusion is not so tidy as to dismiss several interpretations of the events of the film. I know I have my pet theory, and I’ll be curious to hear yours, but not until you’ve experienced the film for yourself.
On a technical level, the movie looks and sounds great, with some genuinely unsettling sound design that will have you checking the room for footsteps. It is no exaggeration to say that the performances are positively stellar, and particular credit goes to Daniel Henshall, who plays a troubled child without being an annoying troubled child. While Jennifer Kent has never helmed a feature before, she displays a confidence in storytelling and technical prowess that suggests great things in the future.
My only criticism of The Babadook is that I was never frightened during the course of the viewing, though I was most certainly engaged and reactive to the events onscreen. The early notices suggested a horrifying film experience, and it lacked that element for me, which is disappointing because almost everything else about The Babadook works perfectly together. Your fear mileage may vary, and I suspect mothers may find the movie unnerving in a way I simply could not appreciate. Despite the lack of personal terror, it is hard not to place this almost immediately on a ‘Best of 2014’ list for the performances and themes alone.
The Babadook is an intensely clever, psychologically fascinating and wicked tale that deserves to be seen by as large an audience as possible. It harkens back to the classic horror films of yesteryear without blatantly stealing their beats, proving that there is still plenty of room for horror films to be about something. Now available on most digital platforms, do yourself a favor and turn out the lights, curl under a blanket, and let The Babadook unfold. And if you hear a knock on the door, trust me… don’t answer it.