Review: Disturbing Aussie midnight movie 'The Babadook' makes a nightmare out of parenting
PARK CITY - Anyone who reads my work here on the site with any regularity knows that I place a very high priority on my job as a father. Before I had my kids, I would not have predicted the depth of feeling that I have for them. I honestly thought it would be more of a chore than anything. But on the night my first son was born, when they put him into my hands for the first time, something shifted inside me and some part of me opened that I didn't even realize had been closed. I felt such a flood of love and duty in that moment that I was overwhelmed, and I wept. To my enormous surprise, those feelings have only grown in the years since then, and I can honestly say that before I define myself as anything else, I define myself as a father.
There is a dark side to parenthood, though, and there is plenty of despair that comes with the job. There are times where I am mystified by the way my children approach a situation, times where they drive me absolutely crazy, and times where I genuinely wonder when their moral compass and sense of self-preservation will kick in. We've had it easy compared to many parents, of course, and in those moments where I am feeling most frustrated or helpless, I can tell myself how much worse things could be. And now, when I'm really at my wit's end, I can always just think of "The Babadook" and thank god that things will never go this wrong.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, "The Babadook" is a deeply unsettling picture about Amelia (Essie Davis), a widow whose husband was killed in a car accident on the way to the hospital so she could deliver Samuel (Noah Wiseman), their son. She's reminded of her husband constantly, and it's created a distance between her and Samuel. It doesn't help that he's a strange kid and getting stranger by the day. Amelia tries to convince herself that the odd tension between them is her fault, something that can be fixed, and she really struggles to try to put things right.
Day by day, though, Samuel seems to be getting stranger, and when he discovers a children's book about a malevolent spirit called the Babadook, it sets off a spiral of events that lead Amelia to question her own sanity and that of her son. The film starts with them still maintaining normal relationships, but little by little, the rest of the world falls away. The highest compliment I can pay the film is that it reminds me of some of the early stretches in "The Exorcist" where there's still a chance that what's happening with Regan is just a medical issue, and Kent gets a lot of mileage out of the mundane here. When things do start to take a supernatural turn, everything is told from such a particular perspective that you can still argue about the truth of what you're seeing. It's not an easy thing to pull off, but Kent has a masterful sense of control over the environment in which she strands these characters.
Essie Davis has a harrowing role to play here, and she handles it very well. Likewise, I can't imagine directing Noah Wiseman in some of the scenes we see here. Asking a kid to go through any of this, even when he knows it's all pretend, is not an easy thing, and much of the film comes down to a two-character battle of the wills. It takes a real sense of trust between the two for any of this to work, and Kent deserves credit for steering them through some very difficult material.
Radoslaw Ladczuk is the film's cinematographer, and he seems to have carved much of the film out of shadow. Jed Kurzel's score is spare and adds just the right emotional punctuation to some ugly moments. Alex Holmes helped make their house feel both like a real living space and also like an ugly evil thing that surrounds them and bears down on them. It is an incredibly accomplished film on a technical level, and just because it's small doesn't mean it is anything less than captivating.
I'm not sure how you reach out to the mainstream horror audience with this. It's very personal, and it plays on the very real fears and anxieties of parenthood in a way that never feels "cool," but that always feels authentic. I found the film very upsetting, and even when it ends, Kent isn't interested in letting you off the hook. Evil never just disappears, and her film seems to argue that there must be some effort made to live with the things that scare us most, since we can never simply wish them away. It's a strong, dreamy debut, and I hope Kent is just warming up.
"The Babadook" will play several more times during the festival.