The Babadook ★★★½

An accident. Locked away. In a basement. The victim's clothing hangs. Still. Straining to replace the body it once covered. Growling in its tomb. Hungry to be heard. Seven years on and the tears are suppressed. The rage is suppressed. Such hate for the child born from trauma. Such distress at his every word and transgression. And so then, there is the book. Appearing on the shelf. As if from nowhere. A pop-up nightmare. Self-induced torture. Shrill cries and hushed whispers. Burnt pages and inky hands. A house existing in a literal grey area between life and death. Between fantasy and crippling, terrifying reality.

The Babadook is more of a psychological drama told with expressionist flourishes than a straightforward horror film. The horror comes from the evocative mise-en-scene and the playful ambiguity of the monstrous situation. It's ultimately genre window-dressing for an intimate character piece dealing heavily with grief, depression and resentment.

The most impressive aspect of the film is Essie Davis's performance. As a mentally burdened mother struggling to cast off the shackles of depression brought on by an unprecedented loss, she is extremely captivating. Perpetually tired and increasingly hostile, Davis nails both the subtly bristling tendencies and the larger-than-life theatrics brought on by the character's heightened drive toward self-destruction. She portrays a damaged mind state unmistakably whether she is shrinking in fear or embodying the aggressor with blood-thirsty ferocity and unshakable resolve.

Her co-star, Noah Wiseman is...harder to pinpoint, perhaps because of how insufferable his character (a problem child extraordinaire) is. As someone who is not a fan of kids, every line from this little terror was like sticking knives in my ears. It's probably the most irritating child character I've ever encountered in a film, but that irritation is also kind of intentional, so it's tough to complain about. Just worth noting, I suppose.

If anything positive is to be gleaned from the kid's presence in the film, it's the director's ability to get the audience to end up sympathizing with him by the end (Sort of - I wouldn't have been that bummed if he was eventually silenced, as awful as that sounds). It's one of several achievements. The chiaroscuro-lit settings are beautiful and inviting in their shadowy shrouds. Effects are dreamy and tangible in a really charming way. Sound design is quite fun as well. Story-wise, the reliance on human psyche to convey horror is more than welcome and far more intriguing than any random ghoul or beast, but it also leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong and while nothing truly spoils the final product, the allegory behind the creepy premise is not too sophisticated.

I'm avoiding particulars to keep this spoiler-free, but I will say that the handling of the "grief" theme is rather basic. It pulls a handful of inspired moments, but the majority is heavy-handed and flatly obvious. Once the main character enters a string of sleepless nights, the spell is broken as visions take place in rapid succession, blatantly pointing to the tale's level of reality. The symbols employed are largely familiar and I found myself hoping for a more nuanced approach, but for something supposedly taking the form of a demented bedtime story, this might just be by design. There's no grand reveal at the end, thank goodness, and aesthetically, it's pretty gripping, but removing the engaging visual sheen unfortunately uncovers some thematic markers that I thought were none too graceful or clever.

In other words, The Babadook looks great and feels great, but is unfortunately overblown and a bit shallow when it comes to its all-important thematic element. Enjoy it for the magnificently macabre style and Essie Davis's highly impressive turn.

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