Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Mother's Day: The Babadook

Noah Wiseman and Essie Davis star in Jennifer Kent's The Babadook

The low-budget Australian horror movie The Babadook is about the relationship between Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed single mother whose husband died in a car crash driving her to the hospital to give birth, and her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Actually, saying that it’s “about” the two characters kind of understates the matter. The movie doesn’t have any more supporting characters than seems absolutely necessary, and the other people who do drop in—Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) and her daughter, a sympathetic neighbor (Barbara West), a co-worker of Amelia’s (Daniel Henshall) who briefly takes an interest in her—don’t hang around; they say their lines, establish their connection to the mother and son (or their lack of same), and vanish, at least until they’re needed again. At one point, when a couple of wordless bit players get the film frame to themselves during an outdoor scene, I felt strangely grateful for the sight of them, as if they’d arrived to keep me company on a desert island.

Usually, movies this under-populated just feel cheap and claustrophobic, but first-time director Jennifer Kent has a game plan: her narrow focus, and her fascinatingly jittery, anxious camera work and editing, result in a genuinely frightening little movie, with a near-Expressionist intensity. The style is a reflection of the mindset of the heroine, who can never get enough sleep. Her son, who’s obsessed with inventing weapons, such as a handmade crossbow, to protect them from something evil and menacing, is in a constant wide-eyed manic state, so that the other characters tend to assume there’s something the matter with him. (Veteran horror movie audiences, meanwhile, may leap to the assumption that he’s some kind of demon child, out of The Omen or Village of the Damned.) The movie has what feels like an in medias res opening, with Amelia so exhausted that it’s hard to imagine what the family’s “normal” existence might be like.

With everything stretched to the breaking point, Amelia is surprised to find a children’s book, with pop-up illustrations, on her son’s bedroom shelf. The book is about “Mister Babadook,” a malicious creature that promises to invade the homes of those reading his story, inhabit the parent’s body, and drive those he possesses to murder and suicide. (He’s like the Satanic patron saint of family annihilators.) The book, which resists Amelia’s efforts to destroy it, looks hand-made itself—which, combined with the fact that only Amelia is able to see and hear the physical evidence that the Babadook actually exists, raises questions, which Kent leaves unanswered, about whether she’s being besieged by the monster or has actually created him herself. But either way, he’s clearly coaxing feelings out of her that are already there: feelings of resentment and rage towards her child, anger at him for having changed her life for the worst, just by being born.

Stories of children in peril, even at the hands of those who are meant to protect them, are nothing new, but they’re usually told from the point of view of the kids. The Babdook’s daring originality comes from its willingness to ask the viewer to identify with the woman driven to try to kill her own child. (It’s like David Cronenberg’s The Brood told from the point of view of Samantha Eggers’ rage-driven mother.) The Babadook grows more deeply scary the more you think about it; that jump-cut of an opening, with the mother already despairing and half-crazed and the boy preparing for battle (and assuring his mom that he’ll protect them both and that everything will be all right) before the book appears, suggests that we may have been dropped into the middle of an ongoing cycle. (And, as in many children’s stories, it’s the child who knows what’s really going on who is assumed by the grown-ups to be crazy.) The film has a “happy ending,” which, like the ending of Blue Velvet, is shot in contrastingly bright, cheery sunshine like the morning after a nightmare. But Kent is less certain than David Lynch that the vanquishing of the monster guarantees a new, upbeat life, and in a way, Amelia seems more hysterical in this coda than at any other point in the movie. For that matter, the monster isn’t really vanquished, just kept at bay. And it’s being kept nourished.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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