Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Babadook

The Babadook is a movie I've heard about since it was first released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014. It has an absurd 98% on RottenTomatoes, and William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist) said "I've never seen a more terrifying film. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me." But I also heard from a number of people that the movie was "overrated" "boring" and "not at all scary." So I wasn't quite sure what to expect. What I got is surely one of the great horror movies ever made, featuring flawless acting, a disturbing story, and wonderful execution of the idea from Jennifer Kent, a long time actress in her native Australia (where this movie is set) making her debut as writer/director here.
The story concerns Amelia (Essie Davis), a single mother who is really struggling to raise her 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman). She's lost her husband, and Sam is continually acting out in often bizarre ways, to the point that he's being kicked out of school. Amelia grinds through her days as a nursing home nurse, relying on the kindness of her sister and sometimes her neighbor to help with Sam. One night, at pre-bed story time, Sam takes a book from his shelf called Mister Babadook (rhymes with book, not duke), and has his mom read it. It's a pop-up book of frightening images and foreboding wording saying that the Babadook will come after you if you let it in. Sam is understandably upset and Amelia tries to get rid of the book. But the book finds its way back, Amelia begins getting frightening phone calls, and she also starts hearing and seeing things around her home.
A movie like The Babadook will only be scary depending on what you find scary from movies. For me, many horror movies never scared me. They're often just a character-less, emotionless, shallow exercise in gore. And gore isn't scary. The point of the movies are typically just to watch people get killed and then eventually the last person (often a woman, after Alien's Sigourney Weaver set that precedent) overcomes the killer and everything is alright. There are exceptions to the positive side, but more often the worst instincts of the genre are exercised and we get the recent trend towards "torture porn", a genre that literally only revels in the disgusting and graphic. Those hold less interest for me than any other type of movie. So if you enjoy those kinds of movies, if you find them scary, then The Babadook is unlikely to get your blood pressure up. For me, this is what horror movies should aspire to.
The Babadook works because it creates its setup, it establishes characters, and we begin to care (how many times have I cried in a horror movie, after all? Pretty sure this is the only one). The book doesn't even show up until about 30 minutes in, I think. But what transpires from there is more in line with the best psychological horror movies. Movies that work from the inside out, using our fears and doubts and not cheaply exploiting, but giving them voice and exploring them. The Babadook works not just on our fears of the dark and unknown, but also on our fears about the worst in us all. What about the dark side of human nature? What about the things we let in and fester within ourselves? Those don't have to be standard horror tropes. What do grief and anger and sadness do when left to their own devices? If we don't deal with our emotions and experiences, can't they make us go a little crazy?

Those questions are part of the central appeal of this movie. We begin wondering if Sam is disturbed mentally, if there are some serious things wrong. Eventually I came to think "what if he's seeing his inner demons manifested for real in front of him?" That's a scary thought. We then wonder if maybe Amelia is getting caught in Sam's delusions, only to have that flipped on us. Is Sam not the one who's disturbed? Is Amelia falling apart? I even wondered at one point if Sam was not actually there, and was instead a manifestation of Amelia's inner emotions she'd been ignoring.
The movie is mostly a two-header with Essie Davis and young Noah Wiseman carrying the heavy lifting. And boy do they shine. Wiseman gives one of the most nuanced, frightening, and best performances from a child actor I've ever seen. In the really intense scenes (some of which feature nothing but mom and son driving in the car), Wiseman's work really got to me and made me worry for Sam intensely. Davis, as Amelia, gives one of the great performances I've seen from an actress. She's troubled, she's at the end of her rope, she is seriously struggling, can't sleep, and has a handful of a child to parent. This is an aspect that might've not hit me 10 years ago, but as a parent, I could relate to so much in Davis's work. As the movie goes along and really ramps up, had Davis hit a false note in any way, the delicate balance of the movie would've gotten lost. Instead, she keeps the movie on her shoulders beautifully. She really sells the ups, downs, and the uncertainty of her character. It's a beautifully layered and powerful performance.

Finally, I can't believe the incredible work done here by Jennifer Kent as a writer and director. In the writing, there's a deceptive depth to much of the movie that could be ignored if you weren't really thinking about it. There's nothing flashy in the language or characterizations, but everything is written just right. In the direction, Kent has surrounded herself with extraordinary work from Production Designer Alex Holmes, who sets up a truly extraordinary house for much of the action to take place in. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk also does wonderful work, again not flashy but often gorgeously playing with the light and shadows of this wonderful house. And Kent herself, in addition to surrounding herself with great talent, throws in nice filming touches (like Amelia falling while she sleeps) and most especially keeps the movie in check, not getting over indulgent and risking wearing out the movie's welcome or dissipating the tension she's built up as a storyteller. It will be interesting to see if she becomes a director worth following. The horror genre doesn't often give us master filmmakers, to be honest, but the filmmaking behind The Babadook is of such a high caliber that Kent may have bucked that trend. I hope so.