February 21, 2015

The Babadook (2014)

Amelia (Essie Davis), a widowed nurse working in an old people's home, lives alone with her troubled son Samuel. He believes that monsters are under his bed, but unlike most children he's taken his fear one step further: constructing genuinely dangerous traps and weapons with which to fight his imaginary predators. One night Samuel finds a mysterious hand-made pop-up book on his shelf titled Mr Babadook. The problems with monsters in the night only get worse from there.

The Babadook is a South Australian horror film written and director by Jennifer Kent. It was a small cult success in Australia, but subsequently gained enormous critical acclaim as it toured film festivals around the world. It recently was co-winner of this year's AACTA Award for Best Picture, and also won Jennifer Kent Best Director and Best Screenplay. If you like to keep up with the world's most acclaimed horror films - and I certainly do - then The Babadook is the clear must-see movie from 2014.

Coming to a film after this much acclaim and hype is always problematic. No matter how hard you attempt to leaven your expectations you can't help but have them set unrealistically high. As a result I'm still not entirely certain if my disappointment with The Babadook is justified or if I simply expected too much from one film.

Don't get me wrong: there's much to recommend. For one thing Essie Davis is incredibly good as Amelia, a woman whose grief over her husband's death has completely coloured and overwhelmed her day-to-day life. She is struggling to control her son Samuel, and she's struggling even harder to keep her head above water. It's a tremendously powerful portrayal of a woman stretched too far and too thinly for too long.

Horror works well as allegory, and Kent has used The Babadook to explore the darkest side of trying to raise a child. Having a child demands your attention, compassion and care every day. You don't get days off, and you don't get to skip a few days when you don't feel like it. Popular culture is full of stories about how much parents cherish their children; it's a rare film to tackle those days when the parent doesn't want their child there any more. In this respect I found The Babadook to be a genuinely impressive work.

Then there are the downsides. After keeping the film on quite an ambiguous and unsettling course for the bulk of the story, Kent lets it down badly with a rather over-the-top and silly climax, and a denouement that doesn't quite pull off what she's clearly attempting. It all works to an extent, but not to enough of an extent, and a film that runs so meticulously in the first 60 minutes really deserves something better in its final 30 than what it actually gets.

Then there's the tone. It's not a criticism so much, since it's all-but-perfectly put together, but it has to be said that The Babadook occupies a very strained, bleak and tenuous reality. Amelia lives far, far beyond her wit's end. She is so exhausted she is bordering on insanity. We feel it. Kent doesn't let us leave that horrendous, hopeless, grating world for one second. While it does make The Babadook an uncompromising and powerful piece, it also makes it one that is - for me, at least - extremely difficult to sit through. So much of this film is put together so well. I simply don't want to be there, without pause, escape, or relief, for so long.

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