One of the year’s most widely-praised horror movies, Australia’s “The Babadook,” methodically chews through a list of terrifying questions: What happens when you can’t protect your child from tragedy and grief? When you can’t protect him from the people around him? From himself? From yourself?
This review is very spoilerous, so enter at own risk. I (as usual) was grateful that I knew very little about the film going in.
Widowed Amelia (an increasingly-frayed Essie Davis) has her hands full coping with her elementary-age son Samuel. Sam, played by the extraordinary Noah Wiseman, dances across that line separating “rambunctious” from “out of control.” He shoots darts at his classmates and breaks a little girl’s nose by pushing her out of a treehouse. He uses his homemade weapons because he’s stressed and scared—these aren’t just toys for him, although there’s also boyish playfulness in his attitude—and he pushes the girl because she’s horrible to him. But you can see how Amelia would start to feel overwhelmed. And then he brings her a pop-up book called Mister Babadook.
“You can’t get rid of the Babadook,” the book threatens. Its creepy drawings and chop-licking verse give Sam nightmares. He can’t sleep, so his mom can’t sleep; and she begins an insomniac descent into horror.
Almost everything about Jennifer Kent’s film is powerful: the haunting music, the sharp visual sensibility (including phenomenal use of old TV clips), the tightening tension as Amelia’s isolation grows. Wiseman can contort his face into a gargoyle howl one moment, then grin shyly up at his mom with a heartbreaking sweetness. He’s an utterly recognizable child. So many horror films today feature a cast of pretty but soulless monster fodder. “The Babadook” knows that horror is much more frightening when you’re rooting for the victims and wishing you could protect them.
The little family is almost totally abandoned by the society around them. They have one helpful old lady next door, but everybody else seems intent on judging them and then walking away from their problems. Don’t drag me down with you! is the message they get. This is a horror movie set in the world of Coming Up Short, the world where walking away from burdensome duties is easy and even respected. (Don’t be codependent! Don’t get caught up in somebody else’s drama!) Nobody seems to feel a duty toward them except the child-welfare social workers, who are surprisingly patient with Amelia but don’t come close to understanding or empathizing with her.
What is the Babadook? The movie offers a partial answer. There’s one very specific thing the Babadook is, one face it wears. But the movie is not an algebra equation. Part of the reason it needs to be a monster movie, not a drama about loss and salvage, is that monsters can’t be reduced to just one thing. The Babadook is a mother’s fears about her own unfitness; it’s a child’s inner turmoil, and the guilt and glee and fear which come with having a body stronger than your self-control; it is grief, yes, hungry grief, but it’s also all the inner voices of judgment. It’s everything we don’t control. It’s the way the world looks when we’re abandoned: Everything warps, everything sprouts fangs, everything is out to get us. Any single specific fear can burst its boundaries and spill out inkily over our whole mental landscape, losing its intelligible name, becoming the Babadook.
And the movie does not shrink from its initial declaration; it does not break its rules. You can’t get rid of the Babadook. What happens instead is startling, a darkly glinting flash of hope amid the wreckage.
I had two problems with this terrific film. The tiny problem is that the dream sequences, with Davis falling slowly back onto a bed, felt shopworn. The bigger problem is that for a film about the impossibility of resolution, “The Babadook” gets real sunny real fast at the end. Amelia has said and done some terrifying things, yet her relationship with her son seems basically solid—even though they’ve still got the bruises from their climactic encounter with the monster. The events of the movie should have shaken this kid badly. The Babadook should have left his clawmarks on their love for one another. It’s possible I’ll notice more shadows in the final scene when I rewatch this movie—and I think I will rewatch it, even though I’ll dread it—but that was my initial impression.
Maybe it’s bizarre to wish that this tragic film was even darker. But I think the movie’s strange, moving ending would be even more powerful if the mother-child relationship was more obviously mangled, yet still loving.
Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.