Sunday, October 11, 2015
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a single mother in Australia whose young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) has behavioral problems so severe, he's all but tossed out of school almost as soon as the movie begins. Amelia lost her husband in car accident on the day Sam was born, and she never really got over it. One night, for bedtime, Sam has his mother read him a book she's never seen before about a creature known as "The Babadook," a shadowy being that preys on children and lives in the darkness. Sam, of course, becomes convinced the Babadook is real and starts causing more trouble for the overworked, under-rested Amelia, who gradually becomes convinced the Babadook is real.
First off, hats off to Esse Davis, who gives one of the best genre performances in ages, the kind of performance that would receive an Oscar nomination if the world was just. She's a loving mother, committed to her son, willing to do anything to protect him and do what's best for him, but the stress of her job, her grief over her husband, and her son's behavioral problems are grinding her down. This is the kind of exhaustion on film that Donald Pleasance would appreciate.
Amelia becomes increasingly isolated, not so much geographically but personally, as she loses allies one by one, not to the threat of the Babadook but because they've reached the end of their rope with Amelia and Samuel: the kindly old neighbor she tells off, her sister who doesn't want Samuel around her daughter, the teachers that deem him a lost cause, and the condescending social workers. As the movie progresses, she finds herself questioning her sanity and her very grip on reality. At the end, when she "lets the Babadook in" so to speak, in essence becoming possessed by it, the transformation is both convincing and terrifying.
The direction of the film, by writer/director Jennifer Kent, is top notch. I hope she contributes more to the genre. The Babadook is kept to the shadows and no explanation is offered for what it is or where it came from. Early on, the creature is depicted in a children's book with pop-up illustrations, and somehow this is incredibly creepy and ominous in its foreshadowing. We never get a solid look at it; Kent keeps it in the shadows with only faint outlines to suggest its shape. It resembles the classic silent film killer Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Calgary if he wore a top hat and had Freddy Kruger-like claws on both hands. Other times, all we hear is its knocking or it coldly whispering its name (be sure to watch this with a good sound system because it will keep you on edge).
Faults? Sure, there are some. The resolution, to a degree, depends on the knot-tying and trap-setting abilities of a 7-year-old, and that's a little hard to buy, even if it is established throughout the film that he has some sort of aptitude for building weapons. Early on, you're also probably going to wish Amelia slaps the boy silly during any one of his multiple tantrums (and there are quite a few).