REVIEW: The Babadook [2014]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 92 minutes | Release Date: May 22nd, 2014 (Australia)
Studio: Umbrella Entertainment / IFC Films / IFC Midnight / Sundance Selects
Director(s): Jennifer Kent
Writer(s): Jennifer Kent

“A friend of you and me”

While it may be the monster lurking in the shadows—one terrorizing the imagination of a little boy already tortured by a darkness stemming from his mother’s inability to see him as anything more than the reason her husband died—The Babadook is also real. It’s the powerful manifestation of rage, guilt, frustration, and grief taking form outside its prey as well as within. Some people can cope with tragedy and move on, accepting the difference between life and death by refusing to forget that those living are still here despite the dead’s absence. Others let it eat away at them until the pain proves too volatile to hold in check, disintegrating all resolve until the black abyss consumes them and humanity is replaced by a demon hungry for blood.

As much a psychological thriller as horror, The Babadook‘s mother/son pairing (Essie Davis‘ Amelia and Noah Wiseman‘s Samuel) are unraveling before our eyes as the anniversary of husband/father Oskar’s (Benjamin Winspear) death arrives. Being that his violent demise occurred as a result of a car crash the night he took his in-labor wife to the hospital, the day is also the boy’s birthday. They’ve avoided it like the plague for six years, choosing instead to throw a joint party earlier with his cousin. The girl’s wish to have a solo princess party this time puts a wrench into those plans while also forcing Amelia to truly confront the day she’d rather have stricken from existence. And things only get worse when Samuel’s overblown fear of monsters escalates so far that his mother begins to see them too.

But what is a monster other than a manifestation of he/she who sees it—a construction of the mind playing tricks in order to let paranoia turn little, explainable things happening around them into a living, breathing creature overflowing with homicidal tendencies? Samuel is afraid of the dark and it’s only exacerbated by the fact he’s self-aware and imaginative enough to turn what his mother probably told him as a badge of honor (his Dad died so he could live) into a gruesome, matter-of-fact statement of the macabre to unemotionally tell strangers in the supermarket. The knowledge of this sacrifice makes the young boy manufacture feelings of heroism his age simply cannot condone as he decides it’s his job to be the man of the house and protect his Mom from the evil that lurks around them.

This is what makes first-time feature film writer/director Jennifer Kent‘s movie so fresh and unique. It’s not simply about a child having the capacity to see nightmarish reality and the adult who dismisses it as a flight of fancy. No, both mother and child believe it’s their duty to protect the other and as a result allow stress and anxiety to warp their minds into seeing and hearing things that go bump in the night. Their subconscious leads them to read the violently disturbing children’s book inexplicably sitting on Samuel’s shelf entitled The Babadook, opening the door to its pervasive text about a creature in the dark waiting to be let in that is menacing in its “playful” form and downright demonic once permeating their souls. It provides the vision of evil, but Amelia and Samuel bring it to life.

The film therefore works on two levels: one of traditional horror wherein legend/story comes to life and one of psychological terror where everything bad that happens is courtesy of demented, sleep-deprived minds simply unable to stop themselves. The lines between fiction and reality blur as Samuel’s desire to be protector turns him aggressive and inconsolable while Amelia devolves into a deranged woman frayed to her last nerve. Their house becomes a fertile breeding ground for The Babadook to grow in power and turn from a creepy man into all-consuming blackness ready to infiltrate everything in its wake. We begin to wonder if the book didn’t simply appear. Perhaps Amelia wrote it herself in a trance, bringing this vile creature to life as her way of ending the pain she’s endured since fate swapped her Oskar for Sam.

There are moments throughout the start that drag a bit as Kent sets the mood and nightly ritual of Sam’s fright turning into Amelia reading him a bedtime story before resigning herself to sleep in his bed while he pulls her hair and chokes her neck in his sleep. The cyclical rollout of these nights prepare us for the increased tension lack of slumber and sanity ratchets up, each morning coming later and later until Amelia is skipping work altogether. The duo pushes away those who care about them, letting thoughts of sympathy and pity transform into anger. They place themselves on an island isolated from anything but their own feelings of inadequacy, gradually turning them on each other as The Babadook’s elongated croak is heard. And the best part is that it may never go away.

Once you deconstruct “monster” into something purely born from the psychological unrest of its victims giving it shape out of the wreckage of their broken souls, that creature can never be defeated. We can medicate, seek therapy, and eventually live with the survival’s guilt born from tragedy, but the potential for relapse is always present. Only strict vigilance can keep it in check for the sake of our lives and those around us terrorized by the darkness only narrowly suppressed to cobble together a happy life. However, once that evil first rises, it’s known—forever struggling to resurface. Sanity is merely a construct based upon behavior society deems “normal”. To those who know true tragedy it’s an illusion: something we fool ourselves into thinking possible if only to hide the fact we’re cognizant of the unforgiving hell in which we live.

courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

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