The Babadook ★★★★

“Don’t let it in! Don’t let it in! Don’t let it in!”

“I love my child,” the woman said,
As she cuddled him within her bed.
“I’m exhausted and worn down, it’s true,
But I am his mother—what can I do?”

Children are one of life’s great joys. Never let it be said otherwise. Never. Especially if you are a mother. The sun and the moon and the stars all exist only within your child and your role as his caregiver. To express misgivings—to admit of the hardship of motherhood, to feel some form of ambivalence about it—is tantamount to renouncing your humanity. What sort of monster would have reservations about her son? What sort of gargoyle would feel anything less than unadulterated pleasure at his presence?

And so Amelia (Essie Davis) smiles wanly and does what she can to be a good and warm and caring mother. It is not that she lacks love for Samuel (Noah Wiseman); on the contrary, she loves him dearly. But she is alone, having lost her husband, Oskar (Benjamin Winspear), in a car accident on the way to the hospital to deliver their boy. Looking at Samuel brings back as many sad memories as happy ones, especially with his seventh birthday approaching—a wonderful, terrible anniversary. Nor does it help that Amelia is an inveterate long-sufferer. Between working at a nursing home and offering to take out her neighbor’s garbage and handling her difficult son, Amelia’s forced generosity of spirit has taken on a distinct air of martyrdom. Life has been sad, but she does little to make it happier, walling off the world and denying her needs and desires in favor of beleaguered servitude. Papering over her grief with a thin veneer of kindly selflessness has not dulled its presence—it has only exhausted her. Her weariness is, at least in part, self-imposed.

“I love my mum,” the little boy said,
As he ran through the hall and jumped into her bed.
“She misses my dad, and there’s monsters about,
But I will protect her, I have no doubt.”

Raising any child by oneself is difficult, but raising Samuel is doubly so. He is not a bad child. But he is an annoyance of a very particular variety—the sort of precocious youngster who has difficulty following instructions, difficulty relating to others, difficulty separating his imagination from reality. He is bright and perceptive—he knows, for example, that Amelia’s statement that she won’t die for many years to come is a hollow lie, for Amelia thought the same thing about Oskar. But he is just...too much.

Yet his too much-ness is only a step removed from the normal trials of raising a young boy. All boys are energetic—but Samuel never stops shrieking, constantly yelling at his mother about one thing or another. All boys have obsessive areas of interest—but Samuel’s is magic, so desperate is his desire to turn fantasy into reality and escape his dour world. All boys have imaginary friends or visions of bogeymen—but Samuel takes this to vigilant extremes, constantly fretting over monsters lurking around corners and building homemade booby traps with which to defend Amelia.

The consequence of Samuel’s outsized oddities is that no one wants to be around him. He has no friends. He is taken out of school after one of his defense mechanisms is wrongly deployed. Even his aunt Claire (Hayle McElhinney) and cousin Ruby (Chloe Hurn) cannot stand him. Poor Samuel is a good child, but emotionally volatile and disturbed (and understandbly so). An outsider’s well-rested vantage makes plain that Samuel needs nothing so much as a bit of therapy and a Temple Grandin hug machine. But for sleep-deprived, grief-stricken Amelia, Samuel needs to do nothing so much as shut up.

“I hate my child,” the woman said,
Her patience dangling by a thread.
“He’s weird and strange and causes such strife;
I think he’s ruining my life.”

When dealing with grief and a troubled boy, there are certain things one should avoid. Do not decorate one’s house as though it is the physical manifestation of an overcast day. Bring some tones from the warm end of the spectrum into your color scheme; grey is lovely and all, but a little orange or yellow never hurt anyone.

Also to be avoided: children’s books of unknown origins. Yet one night, as Amelia settles in to read Samuel a bedtime story, he pulls from the shelf Mister Babadook. It is a beautifully illustrated, hand-crafted pop-up book of terrifying content. From where did it come? The shelf, Samuel says. Neither of them has seen it before, but Samuel insists on reading it and so Amelia ignores her concerns—perhaps bidden on by her past as a children’s book writer, now cast off like so much of her former self.

The story, a nursery rhyme about the squat titular man with long talons and a top hat who once arrived will never leave, is menacing and unsettling, especially when it seems to just...stop prematurely, with blank pages at the back where more story should go. Unsurprisingly, the ghouls Samuel sees in every wardrobe and around every corner coalesce into the Babadook, sowing further dismay among Samuel’s acquaintances and driving his mother to the end of her rope. Violent outbursts and apparent seizures follow, with doctors’ tests seemingly as useless as they were for poor Regan MacNeil. When Amelia requests sedatives so that her boy might be put to sleep, it is at once frightening and heartbreaking—we judge her and yet we cannot blame her.

“I’m frightened of mum,” the little boy said,
Her anger filling him with dread.
“The monster has got her and tortures her so;
She let him in, he will not go.”

The haunted house is a classic horror trope, as is the beleaguered woman hounded by some or another force. Writer-director Jennifer Kent knows this, and calls on images and tones from German Expressionism to Roman Polanski’s “apartment trilogy” to craft her chilling, somber tale. Amelia’s home is suffused with melancholy and dread from the outset, a bleak and sad and hollowed out shell. Even the rubber gloves with which she cleans and the sponge with which she washes the dishes are grey.

But Kent has more on her mind that just frightening her audience—though she does that with great skill, using dark spaces and terrific sound design to instill constant disquiet punctuated by moments of through-the-fingers terror. As three sharp knocks announce the Babadook’s arrival (on more than one occasion, and with varying degrees of sharpness), one begins to wonder if the Babadook has always been there—if Samuel’s talk of monsters was simply more of his plainspokenness, as when he tells a stranger of his father’s tragic death or asks kindly neighbor Mrs. Roach (Barbara West) about her Parkinson’s disease. Samuel’s perspicacity has always lent his relationship with Amelia an uncomfortable edge—he knows that she sees in him the embodiment of her lost love, and that her affection is tinged with sorrow and resentfulness. His mother is his caretaker, but she could so easily become his enemy. All it would take is one...small...push.

“I love my child, and hate him, too,”
The woman said, coming unglued.
“He’s the worst thing ever to happen to me;
Perhaps with this knife, I’ll be set free.”

Kent’s story of maternal terror is ingeniously structured to shift sympathies fluidly. Samuel starts out an incorrigible pill, a child who would tax the patience of a saint. That saint appears to be Amelia, whose thin smile and quiet demeanor abide her son’s difficult nature with an admirable, albeit occasionally faltering, resolve. But it is a façade, as Claire rightly notes—at least a part of Amelia cannot stand being around her son any more than anyone else can. The Babadook is perhaps a spirit from another world, or perhaps simply Amelia’s worst impulses given terrifying stop-motion form.

Whatever the Babadook is, he unleashes a darkness within Amelia that is more frightening than any jump scare or chainsaw-wielding psychopath. It is the betrayal of a loved one, the venom of a person who—despite being under orders to have your best interests at heart—knows better than anyone how to hurt you. Kent does not shy away from moments of bloodshed, but far more bruising are Amelia’s moments of verbal abuse, acknowledging sadly legitimate truths in the harshest, most indefensible ways possible.

For Kent’s ambitions to be realized, her actors must be up to the task. Fortunately both Davis and Wiseman are, with Davis in particular delivering a performance of remarkable, soul-searing conviction. Twisting believably from a kind-hearted soul trying to make the best of a terrible situation to a vengeful, hate-filled monstrosity, Davis is both sympathetic and repulsive in equal measure, operating as the heroine and the villain of the piece. Wiseman also does terrific work (no doubt aided by Kent, Davis, and others), believably shifting Samuel from an insufferable twerp to an object of pity and admiration and some humor. The Samuel of the final scene is not all that far removed from the Samuel of the first scene, but Kent recalibrates the surrounding details so perfectly that he seems transformed from a shrill urchin to a lovably odd misfit.

“Bring me the boy,” the monster hissed,
And the woman thought, “He won’t be missed.”
With three sharp knocks, he entered their heads;
He will not stop until they’re dead.

“You are trespassing in my house,” Amelia screams at the Babadook as he tries to rob her of her son. She speaks literally, but also figuratively. Grief and ambivalence have trapped her for too long, the dead hand of the past choking the life and color from her home and from her soul. The Babadook’s three sharp knocks awoke in her terrible things, an acknowledgement of how much she had always hated Samuel, of how dissatisfied she had been with her life, about the wounds that she had let fester rather than heal.

Perhaps it was the best thing for her. One can never move on from the past until one looks it in the eye and sees it for what it is: a memory, sometimes shrieking violently, sometimes smiling pleasantly, but a ghost regardless. It cannot hurt you or those you love unless you let it. Simply brushing it off, ignoring it in the hope that it will go away, is futile. That way lies infection and sepsis. Better to acknowledge the pain as a way of moving past it, knowing that it is normal and natural and that, with time, it will slowly ebb. But it will never truly be gone. If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.

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