' Cinema Romantico: The Babadook

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The Babadook

I was in the checkout line at Trader Joe’s and the guy running the cash register asked me how I was doing as a means, I suspect, to expound on just how tired he was because of his brand new baby. And you could see that he had a brand new baby – the bags under his eyes, the zombie-like movements as he scanned items. The man hadn’t slept in a really long time, which he stated for the record. He just wanted some sleep, he said. He loved his little son, he said, he truly did, but sometimes, he said, you just want to strangle the little guy. I didn’t really know how to react. Perhaps I should have called social services, but then you knew the guy didn’t really mean it even if he did just a little bit. That’s what happens when exhaustion sets in.


I saw that look again recently. It was on the face of Essie Davis in “The Babadook” in which she gives a performance that is strictly vanity-free. But then it’s nigh impossible to be vain when you’re playing a widowed mother whose patience has been trundled past the limit. In that situation, every mother probably feels like she has knots in her hair and blood splattered on her face all the time. The film is horror, yes, but rather than existing as a mere genre exercise it brilliantly blurs the lines between monster mash and domestic nightmare, evoking how raising a child puts a whole different spin on the phrase Night Of The Living Dead - as in, I haven't slept for days, months, years. Everything Uma Thurman’s middlebrow, monotonous “Motherhood” wanted to say about the perilous stress of spending every day wrangling an adolescent but could not is conveyed with a fiercely compelling urgency in Jennifer Kent’s feature film debut.

Davis's Amelia lost her husband in a car crash the same day her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) was born. He’s seven years old when “The Babadook” begins and plagued by an over-active imagination, a violent streak, and a scream that can become imbedded in that place in your head where you really feel the ice cream headache. He’s worn Mom down to her nub. You can see it in Amelia’s eternally tousled hair, sudden mood swings and vacant expressions. When Samuel shoves his cousin out of a treehouse, Amelia just stands there for a second or two, frozen, not because she can’t believe what her son did (because I think she totally can) but because fatigue elicits delayed reaction time.

So many of the best horror films take their cue from the notion that what's scariest is what we don't see. “The Babadook”, however, inverts that idea by taking something we can't see and giving it a face - namely, depression. Depression, it is often said, is a monster, and so here it is illustrated in a blood-red storybook Amelia reads aloud to her son that scares the heebie-jeebies out of them both. “The more you deny me,” says The Babadook as it pops up on the page, “the stronger I get.” That's a strident allegory, yes, but perhaps Kent's most impressive achievement in a film rife with them is how she takes the metaphor and the monster and runs them right into one another so that the characters can't tell the difference. We can't tell the difference.

Twice Kent returns to the shot of her protagonist laying in bed and pulling the covers up over head, an image that speaks directly to the film's potent double meaning, neither of which becomes lost in translation. There are days, no doubt, when Amelia hopes that vanishing beneath her sheets will make the monster go away. It doesn't, of course, and so even if she doesn't want to get out of bed and go through the gauntlet of her own life, she does and continues to do so regardless of the enervation it engenders. And maybe that's the only way to quell the looming specter.

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