Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

Nov 29, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

by Will Ross

It’s so rare that the subject of mental illness reaches the attention of mainstream movies that it’s important to seize upon the topic when it’s brought up, especially because it’s even rarer that the subject is treated well. Sometimes, that’s understandable: it’s deathly hard to dramatize a condition with no external symptoms (short of sinking to histrionics, as any number of anguished monologues will show). Sometimes it's less understandable, no more prominently in recent memory than the bizarrely off-base depiction of bipolarity in Silver Linings Playbook. I’m passionate enough to care, but seasoned enough to dread the subject when it’s introduced, usually with expository clanking and the proselytizing reverence of an under-informed outsider. The Babadook never gave me that chance, and the most important thing about it may be that it doesn’t dislocate the audience from the sufferers of mental illness, and it never exoticizes nor romanticizes the experience or the act of overcoming it.

Granted, the film seems to begin with the same wary eye towards the mentally ill that so many other horror films have, opening up on an already-strained family: almost seven years after the death of her husband, Amelia (Essie Davis in an intense and brilliant performance) struggles with the day-to-day pressures of raising her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She falters with bills, she endures the depressing tedium of her work, and she copes with Sam’s intensifying inability to distinguish reality and fantasy (he crafts monster-killing weapons and brings them to school). Most importantly, she obviously has not gotten over the trauma of her husband’s sudden death, suffered in a car crash while he drove her to the hospital during childbirth. The event still so sharply defines their family dynamic that Sam has never celebrated his birthday on the actual date of his birth, the day being implicitly set aside for mourning.

As things unfold, Sam’s obsession with fashioning weapons to kill monsters worries his teachers, his friends, and his mother more and more, until he is rejected by the former two and increasingly resented by Amelia, who herself bears no small amount of ostracization on his account.

So the stage is well-set for an intense family drama, but even someone going in blind could quickly predict The Babadook’s genre from its creepy, surreal opening dream sequence, its steely, desaturated pallette, and its unsettlingly hushed soundscape. But unlike virtually any other writer-director of horror, first-timer Jennifer Kent doesn’t insist upon her genre; she only connotes it in order to set up her audience for what’s coming. In the meantime, Kent uses her framing to box in Amelia, and the cutting to pile on mishaps and misfortunes just a touch faster than the poor mother can cope with or respond to. The editing and camerawork don’t trumpet their craftsmanship, but always quietly work to some subtle, apprehensive end, such that we are constantly aware that something really, really bad is going to happen.

You can spot it as a horror — one working in the best tradition of scaring you well before anything especially horrifying happens — without too much trouble, but it shifts most incontrovertibly into its genre when, for his nightly bedtime story, Sam asks to be read a book from the shelf called Mr. Babadook. At first, it's charming. Then, page by charcoal-drawn, pop-up page, the supernatural, cloak-and-top-hat-wearing creature of the book’s title grows more and more frightening. Soon it becomes clear that the book’s Seuss-ian rhymes describe a demonic spirit of the soul-eating variety, and are probably not the best thing to read to a child who genuinely believes in monsters.

The stage is set, and when Sam’s monster paranoia intensifies and Amelia finds shards of glass in her soup but not her son’s, the dominos of their already strained relationship begin to fall. Paedophobia is far from a new concern in horror, but as her son’s maddening obsession with the Babadook torches what little social capital Amelia had left, she starts to spot glances of the Babadook’s top hat, cloak, and long-clawed gloves, and this is where the movie starts to become something really special.

For starting here the film begins a crescendo of committed ambiguity, and as she sees more and more of the book’s monster, Amelia’s ever-faltering smile and whisper of a voice give way to hardened anger and embittered growls, and a growing suspicion forms that she is fast losing her own grip on reality. It’s never really clear if the supernatural threat is genuine (and the film, wisely, keeps the Babadook mostly in shadows), or if her own traumatized depression, unchecked and dismissed by friends and family, is sending her off a long-awaited deep end. The Babadook begins to work complex changes of perspective with surprising fleetness, first between the maybe-imagined visions and objective reality, then, more subtly and impressively, between Amelia and her son, who for all his frightful habits begins to seem less and less frightening than his mother.

Then comes the final act, where most horror movies — especially ambiguous ones — rarely stick the landing. The very long and eventful night that the movie spends with its characters in their house is straightforward, and in some ways familiar. But the machinery of Kent’s script and direction click into place to create a climax where we know that there are some things that really do happen, and some things that the characters may only believe is happening, but the dividing lines become as blurry for us as they are for the characters. Soon we realize that the most terrifying thing about The Babadook is not that this murderous, soul-eating monster might be real, but that it might not be real. The film’s perfectly balanced parallel readings push and pull at each other, and as they do the film twists deep into those psychological fears that any horror filmmaker will purport to exploit, but which few have the formal intelligence and dedication to sieze.

It’s a film of truly fearsome intelligence, packing a head-spinning number of ironies, double meanings, and perspectival ambiguities into its 90 minutes, most of them intertwined and neatly resolved, but with enough loose ends to keep you on edge and poke at your psyche well after it’s over. Its family dynamic and climax of supernatural imagery recall The Exorcist, The Shining, and other classics, and its central maybe-mad mother figure brings it closer to The Innocents than anything else. But The Babadook does something that I’ve never seen a horror movie do: it breaks down the characters' fantasies and their real experience until they are not only indistinguishable, but functionally identical. If the horror genre has given us a better, more responsible depiction of mental illnesses and the anguish of coping with them alone, I’ve yet to see it.


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