Letterboxd Review: The Babadook (2014)
I missed out on this one completely the last few years, and I have to say it's a weird feeling. To dispel all suspense, I think this film is masterful and it's a solid recommend from me. At the same time, I couldn't be happier that I waited to see it, and I don't know if I'll ever be able to watch it again. I became a parent in 2014 around when this film released, and I've struggled with all the normal parent schizo stuff: impostor complex, resentment, fear that I'm passing on my horrible shit to my kids. If I had seen this film before now, it's possible I might have crumbled. The level of dread that rises steadily throughout the first hour is almost too much to bear. Stuck in "critic" mode for the first few minutes, I started hunting for the metaphor or theme of the horror film so loved by all my trusted sources, and then gave up after the horrors of the human mind flooded out and gave me too much to try and analyze. What is The Babadook about, exactly? I don't know that I'm capable of fully interpreting it, but within this tightly wound subconscious thriller is an ongoing meditation on mental illness, on parenthood, and on grief, among other things.
Writer/director Jennifer Kent has brewed up something as stark and coldly evil as the pictures of the Mister Babadook picture book that heralds everything horrible yet to come in the back half of the film. The set design manages to combine a look of mundane domestic depression approaching squalor with an overlying texture of cold, monochrome stone or cement, with Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman as the lone splashes of color and life at its center as Amelia and Samuel. Some blink-and-you-miss-it editing flourishes help capture the twitchy, floaty, wallowing confusion of being paralyzed by depression and glued in place in front of the uncaring glow of a television. The scraping, skittering, raspy sounds of the Babadook paint a more pants-wetting leviathan image in my head than any CGI creature effect could. And this may be the horror film of the decade in terms of performance. Not since The Exorcist has a horror film succeeded so sharply in seizing on an audience's deep-seeded terror largely by way of an actor's presence and power on camera. Essie Davis, I'm quite convinced, has either gifted The Babadook with a genuine piece of her soul, or has conjured and bottled uncut human experience like an alchemist. If the Oscars were not one hundred percent total hogwash (which they are), a nomination for Best Actress would have been hers, and The Babadook would be up for a few other categories, come to think of it.
As phenomenal and terrifying as Essie Davis's performance is, and indeed the entire movie hinges on her performance from the first frame, some of the most breathless moments of existential power come from young Noah Wiseman as seven-year-old Samuel. It's quite the neat trick that Wiseman hovers his character right between the wide-eyed malevolence of a Damien type and the inarticulate dread-whine of the betrayed child when confronted with pain they don't understand. If you have experience with kids, you recognize the truth in Wiseman's performance. Kids are creatures of instinct. They fear literally everything, including fear itself. A very common thread in young children is the desire for preparedness, defense against, and prevention of fear, and Samuel is a character built on that natural instinct to not experience it.
It's not an unimpeachable horror film. It still has a few of the cheap shots, like a (thankfully restrained) jump-scare here or there, and nakedly manipulative plot points that seem included out of necessity rather than any spirit of invention (there is a dog, I'll leave it at that). The shadowy glimpses of the Babadook "creature" if we can call it that, are almost gratuitous in frequency, but manage to stop just short of that line. And the sound mix on the film is one of those. I understand the need for persistent ominous tones to tell an audience when it's time to be scared, especially in the real by-the-numbers slasher and monster films. But this movie didn't require it. Whenever the sound dipped into muffled distortion or when absolutely silent, I was less engaged with the nightmares being depicted as I was braced for the inevitable surge in decibels my ears were anticipating. It's a cheap way to build physical tension, and even the best of horror films seem required by international law to include it. Really, when the film is at its full weight and I found it hard to breathe, the sound is minimalist. It was letting me focus on what is unsettling or panic-inducing about the moment itself, rather than setting me up for the moment to assail me.
Those are the most nitpicky of arguments, however, against a Swiss watch of a psychological horror. It's paced perfectly, the plot becoming more self-contained and trapped within itself little by little, and with great gusts of unhinged, unmoored lunacism only separated out by the barest of decompression points. As the characters lose time, drift in and out of a sometimes drug-induced haze, and question the reality of everything they experience, so too does the audience feel the bottom-of-the-gut dread rising, rising like the impossibly tall, flat visage of the titular fiend. But here's the thing, the reason why The Babadook is so damn good: it could do all of that and still be one of the freshest, best horror films of recent memory, but Kent was not satisfied with that. She also conjures all of this raw human reaction in order to say something significant. This is a horror film that says something, dammit. It screeches it at you, and you might be too wrapped up in the fear to parse the words. But inside the spooky story about actual literal survival is a conversation about internal survival, about reflection, and about coping. I find it highly unlikely that I'll see another like this one anytime soon. Catch it quickly on Netflix, it's leaving next week!
This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.