Directed by Jennifer Kent.
2014. Not Rated, 94 minutes.
Amelia (Davis) is a lonely widow struggling to raise her six year old son Sam (Wiseman). Her husband, Sam's father, was killed in a car-wreck while rushing her to the hospital on the night she gave birth to Sam. The two have been grieving ever since. Perpetually sad, Amelia has been cold, and distant towards Sam and he has had severe behavioral problems at school and has been removed. Like lots of other children, Sam thinks there are monsters under his bed and/or in his closet. On a nightly basis Amelia finds herself reassuring Sam. Often, this ends with Sam coming to sleep with her. Things take a turn for the worse when Sam finds a pop-up book that mysteriously appeared on his shelf called "Mister Babadook" and he asks his mom to read it to him. When she does, she finds it to be an ominous tale informing them both things are about to be so bad they'll both wish they were dead. From this point on, a strange and evil entity seems to be stalking Amelia and Sam.
As things continue to go bump in the night...and in the day, it becomes apparent that this Babadook thing is effecting Amelia as much as it is her son, no matter how much she tries to convince herself to the contrary. We realize that this isn't some mere monster. This is the weight of six long years of grieving crashing down upon both Amelia and Sam. It is overwhelming both of them with seemingly no relief in sight. The point is driven home by the fantastic performance of Essie Davis. I'm sure the screenplay, and the director, instructed her push Sam away whenever he tried to get close. She makes it feel completely genuine and, in her eyes, earned. After all, this is the person she deems at least partly responsible for the death of her husband. The subtle ways in which she shifts him into less intimate positions whenever he gets near and the look of disdain mixed with obligation on her face all convey these emotions. A lesser film would have her break down at some point and confess her lack of affectionate love for her son through a cascade of tears. Amelia would never do that. She just trudges through life wishing her husband were still here. When it becomes apparent that Mister Babadook is not just something Sam dreamed up, her maternal instincts kick in. She seeks to protect Sam, but still has trouble embracing him. It's a subject often visited by this film, but not one that it ever verbalizes. Davis's performance utilizes the same strategy. It's not what she says that's so gut-wrenching. It's what she doesn't. When she finally gets to cut loose we know the sentiment has always been there. We're just not sure if the actual words are hers.
From a traditional standpoint, The Babadook makes use of plenty of the haunted house tropes we've all become accustomed to. There are lots of noises, twisted visions, and our resident boogeyman is fond of saying his own name with a voice that is authoritatively gravelly, yet exasperated as if on the verge of asphyxiation. In most movies this leads to some research and investigation until we discover that the entity has been done wrong in some way back when they were human. That doesn't happen here, at all. It just is. The combination of it being there, with no explicit explanation, and all of the things that were going on in Amelia and Sam's lives before Mister Babadook showed up makes all the haunted house cliches feel fresh. Instead of spending time on Ghostbusteresque characters trying to detect a presence and find out why it's haunting the place, we're submerged further into the world Amelia and Sam have created for themselves. On those rare occasions when outsiders are involved, they are looking at things from a strictly real-world perspective. Amelia's sister Claire (McElhinney) is concerned that Amelia is circling the drain, so to speak. She's just about losing it. The same goes for a couple of child-care workers who visit Amelia's home. Keeping these people unaware of the supernatural insanity that is going on in their house, the film is rooted in a sense of reality not often afforded to haunted house flicks. We better empathize with people going through something they can't readily explain and that might not even be real to others because most of us have been there before.
From a visual standpoint, The Babadook makes sure to echo the dour mood of its protagonist. A great deal of the film is spent inside Amelia's and Sam's house. It is a positively depressing looking place. Most of the walls are the drabbest gray imaginable with nary a picture hanging anywhere to break up the sadness. Amelia herself is always dressed in homely rags befitting her mood. Sam's room is slightly more cheerful with a few posters and other little boy stuff, but that dreary color is present there, too. Their house feels less like a home than a box they're trapped in. We're not surprised when we learn that Amelia and Sam almost never get any visitors. Warm and inviting, it is not. Amelia and Sam mostly just stay there and silently, at least to much of the outside world, rot away.
Since this is a movie, we do get a rage filled finale as things come to a head. Essie Davis kicks things into high gear with a stretch of acting reminiscent of Piper Laurie in the original Carrie. However, with all that she's gone through to this point, we understand that there's much more going on. Thankfully, the movie itself remembers this and gives us a conclusion that, at first, seems to be a cop-out, particularly when compared to others in its genre. A little thought reveals that its a perfect ending. It really should not end any other way. To get into the reasons why would be to spoil the film and I don't want to do that. The film deserves my restraint, at least as it pertains to its resolution. Just know that that restraint is tenuous, at best. I would launch into an extended diatribe about why the ending is perfect. It's best for me to stop this review, here, so you can watch it and form your own opinions and interpretations. As for me, I think I'll watch it again. It's that good.