Wednesday, December 24, 2014

2014 at the Movies: The Babadook

[Beware of Spoilers]

Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2014) accomplishes for motherhood what Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) did for fatherhood.  

It’s an unromantic, dark and yet ruthlessly honest horror film that is certain to ignite controversy in some quarters for its point-of-view that  motherhood -- though sometimes “wondrous” -- can prove physically and mentally “treacherous,” to quote from The Babadook’s monologue about magic.

Specifically, the low-budget, Australian horror film may not truly concern an imaginary, childhood monster come to life (the titular Babadook) but rather the monsters of exhaustion, fatigue and anxiety that accompany the raising of a young child, especially without the help of a spouse or fellow parent.

The Babadook expressively captures the sheer relentlessness of such child-rearing -- the endless nuts-and -bolts of day-to-day mothering -- with a color-drained, ash-gray visual palette, forays into fast-motion life passing before your eyes, and instances of dedicated visual symbolism.

Accordingly, director Kent makes you feel like you are right there in the trenches with the film’s mother, Amelia, as she contends with an uncaring support system on the job, at her son’s school, and even within her own family. She has nowhere to turn for help, no escape valve, and that is the brand of psychic anxiety that never goes away, never fully dissipates.

The film’s greatest strength, perhaps, is its (compassionate) ability to put the viewing audience in Amelia’s shoes as she lurches from one crisis to another, all while getting less and less sleep. The Babadook makes motherhood look like a gauntlet -- a mine-field -- even without the presence of a Nosferatu-like menace in the mix.

Many of the special effects in the film are accomplished old-school, with very little apparently done in terms of CGI. Some effects, in the last half, are executed clumsily, and don’t quite garner the hoped-for effect.  Horror fans should also be wary of the hype calling the film, essentially, the scariest movie ever, because The Babadook is more psychologically unnerving than traditionally scary, and the film won't benefit from the wrong kind of expectations being raised.

But beyond such minor quibbles, The Babadook is certainly one of the most confident, clever and cerebral horror films of the year. 

 “I’ll soon take off my funny disguise…”

Amelia (Essie Davis) has raised her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) from birth with virtually no help. Her husband, Oscar, died in a car crash while driving her to the hospital on the day of the child’s birth.

Now -- six years later -- Amelia holds down a job in a dreary hospital (in the dementia ward…), visits occasionally with her judgmental sister, Claire (Hayley McElhinney), and struggles to survive each day with Sam, who has been showing signs of increased aggression and anxiety. He also suffers from bad dreams.

One night, Sam asks Amelia to read from a red children’s book, Mister Babadook that has appeared mysteriously on his book-shelf. 

The book tells of a night-time visitor to a child’s bedroom, a monster in a top-hat whose hideous outward appearance is surpassed only by the terrifying identity underneath his cloak.

If you see that identity…you die.

Samuel is disturbed by the book’s imagery, and by the fact that it states “once seen, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.”

Amelia attempts to dispose of the creepy text, but the book keeps re-appearing, even after she rips its pages up.

Soon, the book returns anew, with a newly written ending which tells Amelia that the more she denies the Babadook’s existence, the stronger it will grow. 

Finally, the book reveals to Amelia horrible pop-up imagery of a woman going mad, killing those she loves, and eventually herself…

“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook…”

The Babadook paints motherhood as, essentially, an unending marathon. 

Amelia works all day, puts out the fires Samuel starts in school, and then must get the high-strung (though loving…) boy to bed each night.  He rarely sleeps much at all, and Amelia grows more and more tired dealing with his particular set of problems.

Director Kent expresses the repetitive grind of Amelia’s life in visceral terms, and with effective imagery.  When Amelia finally does get to sleep, the night actually “fast forwards,” meaning that it ends in a blink.  Amelia has hardly closed her eyes before daylight shines in her window.  Twice in the film, this night-time fast forward occurs, revealing how for Amelia there is no time to relax, no time to catch-up. She goes to sleep, and before she knows it, it is time to start the grind all over again.

At another juncture in The Babadook, Amelia orchestrates a game of Bingo at the old folks’ hospital where she works, and we get another symbol of her plight, of her unhappy life.  She mindlessly pulls a handle on the bingo machine or cage, and inside it the balls pop and sputter but go nowhere as the circular enclosure spins and spins. This is how Amelia feels, or perhaps sees the world. She jumps up and down, turning and spinning, but never actually goes anywhere as life seems to pass her by.

The poor woman is even denied the pleasure of masturbating in peace (and to climax…) and so the film’s slate-gray production design telegraphs a trenchant point about Amelia’s world view.  She finds no joy or pleasure -- no color -- in anything she does. There is no bright spot to her days, no time to relax, and certainly no time, even, for herself or her basic needs.  The gray is ubiquitous.

By contrast, Claire’s house (and the playhouse in her backyard) are seen in shades of bright immaculate white, suggesting that her existence is light and bright in comparison to Amelia’s drudgery and difficulties.

Crucially, the interior of the Mister Babadook book is also all gray…penned in various shades of charcoal ash. It has been conceived and illustrated in a world without hope (despite the promise of the scarlet cover…), and that provides us one key, I believe, to who, precisely, penned the mysterious book.

For Amelia then, gray is the color of her world.  Everything has come down to drudgery and routine in the management of Samuel. She gets him to school, picks up him from school, feeds him dinner, and then tries to get him to bed.  Then she has to check in his wardrobe/closet, and under his bed for monsters. 

Because Samuel has a lot of bad dreams about monsters. 

This is so because he lives in a world without answers. He has no father, but Amelia will tell him nothing about how he lost his dad, or why he shouldn’t fear losing his mother too. He is lost and adrift, and therefore highly susceptible to the monster under the bed.

Kent establishes Amelia’s difficult life brilliantly and confidently, and we get a long, hard look at the woman’s anxieties and fears. She is afraid not merely of failing Sam, but of spending the rest of her years just like this, alone in a world without pleasure, color or hope.

Again, Kent makes the point highly impactful with her selection of visuals. Amelia gazes out across her kitchen window and sees the kindly old neighbor, Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), living a life alone in the house across the way.  The old woman sits slouched in a big chair, watching the television without the comfort of a husband or family of any kind.

This is what Amelia could become, she fears, if she can’t break out of the relentless rut of her home-life. 

At one crucial point, Amelia spies a figure -- the Babadook -- behind Mrs. Roach, and the visual implication is that he has manifested there because Mrs. Roach is an avatar for Amelia’s anxieties. 

The monster is from Amelia’s Id.

Even more tellingly, perhaps, Amelia suffers a plague of bugs in her kitchen at one point. Cockroaches spill out of the walls, dirtying everything. There’s a connection here, as you have guessed: Mrs. Roach and a swarm of roaches.  They are two manifestations of the same fear: that the overwhelming work of Amelia’s life is threatening to consume her, to spread out and leave nothing behind but a spoiled, used-up husk.

Why does this portrait of exhaustion and anxiety resonate?

If you have ever cared for a young child, you understand.  I love my eight year old son, Joel, deeply, as Amelia surely loves her boy, Samuel.

And yet I remember a time before he was one, when he had terrible acid reflux. Every day, just as the sun went down, Joel would start to cry, and the only way to make him feel better was to walk him and up and down the staircase, sometimes for three or four hours at a spell. Kathryn and I would tag team the job, but that didn’t necessarily make it easier, especially since he would wake up for crying spells several times a night as well.  I remember sitting in his room, trying to put him to sleep, for what felt like hours. Sometimes, I feared I would lose my mind…or my temper.

After a few weeks of this routine, Kathryn and I began to dread sundown -- the losing of the light -- because we knew Joel would be in pain, and we understood the physical effort, as well, it would take to placate and soothe him.  In these dark moments, you start to contemplate crazy things. And the more tired you get, the crazier those ruminations become.

The Babadook dwells for its ninety-minute run of that fear of night falling, of that insanity that seems to fall like a shroud with the onset of moonlight.

At night, we should be sleeping. We should be resting. But parents of young children don’t necessarily get to do that. Instead, the night becomes a waking nightmare -- or marathon -- in which you must not only stay awake, but be attentive, and loving. 

I’ll be honest: I had Kathryn to share the job with, and I still nearly cracked a few times.  In The Babadook, Amelia does crack.  Not because she doesn’t love Samuel. Not because she is a bad mother.  But because, at some point, the body can no longer endure the lack of sleep, the fatigue, or the repetitive nature of parenting duties.

The Babadook proves so effective because so many parents have been where Amelia is, but -- through the grace of God (and the help of a loving support system) -- they have have made it through with little or no real damage. Amelia has no such support system, and the results are catastrophic. Her gray life, her perpetual exhaustion, either manifests or lets in something…evil.

The Babadook’s big question concerns that monster.

Is it real?

Or has Amelia (Davis), experienced a psychotic break from reality stemming from the grievous loss of her husband, Oscar, and the exhaustion of maintaining a job and taking care of difficult Samuel?

This question is the heart of the film, and The Babadook is one of the few horror films I can remember or pinpoint that suggests the (realistic) idea that emotional strife (or even mental illness) is not something you can “get rid of,” but rather something that you must live with every day, and that such an accommodation with “the monster,” is, actually, possible. 

The enemy is not the monster itself, but denial: the burying of secrets and pain under a cloak of normalcy.  The monster can be lived with, if faced, acknowledged, and “fed” on a daily basis, The Babadook suggests, if not destroyed.

The Babadook is an affecting horror movie not only because Kent has so clearly thought through the anxieties and difficulties of motherhood and found ways of expressing them in terms of the visuals, but because Davis gives a sympathetic, three-dimensional performance. You may get angry at Amelia while watching the film, but you are always on her side. You always want her to beat the Babadook. 

At one point Amelia becomes the very thing she sees on a weird old cartoon in the middle of the night: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That’s what all parents (mothers and fathers) can become if they are pushed beyond the breaking point.

The Babadook has earned glowing reviews from critics across the board, and rightfully so given its cerebral, emotional, and visceral nature. Some very jaded fans, however, will not be satisfied, I believe, with how the story ends, and with some of the pyrotechnics or special effects.  Some effects are lingered on a little too long, thus exposing the in-camera gimmickry behind them. And some will ultimately be disappointed at what is seen (or not seen) under the Babadook’s cloak and hat.

Without second guessing anyone else’s reaction, The Babadook remains the best kind of horror movie: one that can be seen and understood in two ways simultaneously.

In one reading, the monster is a horrible thing from a children’s book.

And in the other, the monster is a horrible thing inside us, waiting to spill out -- like black bile -- where we are weakest: in grief, or in exhaustion.

Finally, however, I would pick the latter reading.  I believe that Amelia is the source not only of the monster we see in the film, but the mysterious book itself.  Pay close attention to the dialogue at a birthday party.  Amelia reveals that before her husband died, she was a writer, and that in addition to articles for periodicals, she wrote some things for children. Therefore, The Mister Babadook book may be her creation.

Similarly, note how the words “the boy” are utilized by various individuals in the story, and the way that Amelia reacts to the term each time it is used.  She takes great offense at it, when it is spoken by school principals and monsters from her own id.

Regardless of how you choose to interpret the film, The Babadook is a horror movie that resonates in the imagination and will trouble your slumber. It's scarier, almost, in the possibilities and ideas it raises than in the traditional "jump scare" mode that many of us expect.

So even if you consciously try to deny its overall psychic power, you can’t rid of the imagery and ideas depicted in The Babadook.

1 comment:

  1. The most amazing thing about "The Babadook" is the number of ways that its story can be interpreted. You can view it as a story about the difficulties of single parenting, a tale about dealing with grief, a telling of living with a challenging child, or even just about battling insomnia. That's what makes this movie so good. Viewing this only as a monster haunting a house will bring disappointment. You might consider watching this through the same filter as you would "The Shining", with Mister Babadook in the role of Jack Torrance.

    Contrary to some reports, this is not one of the "scariest movies ever". It brings the terror, but it is far from horrific. I really enjoyed Essie Davis's portrayal of the tortured mother and Noah Wiseman as the son may have been the most frightening thing about this. Mister Babadook is an interesting creation, a cross between Nosferatu and Mister Hyde. You don't see a lot of him and the creepiest moments are when he seems to appear in some old silent film footage playing on a TV on a particularily sleepless night. The color pallete is a depressing grey/black and the sound engineers really earned their paychecks.

    "The Babadook" is a thought-provoking tale and one that should be experienced without any preconceptions. Watch it and roll with what it offers. You will more than likely come away impressed.