Chris Kirby’s review published on Letterboxd:
An absolutely tremendous debut from down under.
The Babadook is nothing short of a powerhouse film from newcomer Jennifer Kent. The film is powerful in both its storyline and its performances. First and foremost, children are fucking creepy. It's a great horror trope that has been revisited time and time again and it is in full force here. The extra piece here though is that the child isn't possessed or dead or any other sort of paranormal anomaly that is typically attributed to the creepy child archetype. The child in The Babadook is fucking creepy simply because that is how the film portrays him.
Essie Davis plays the mother to the aforementioned child, who is played by the young Noah Wiseman, and she bolsters the shoulders upon which the film rests. She is able to convey such extraordinarily strong emotion throughout the film that we fully believe in who she is from the opening until the closing. She screams and contorts and cries and fears with extreme power at any given second. She more than capably carries this film and is the largest part of its success.
Here is where the discussion can easily diverge. Yes, the performances are great. Yes, everything clicks together to create a tense, horrific atmosphere that successfully delivers fear and terror to the audience. It wasn't really all that necessary though and that makes the film feel a bit weird. What I am about to say can be both a benefit and a boon to the film, it is up to the viewer to land on either side of that line. Either way, I still really liked this film and believe it is very much deserved of its praise.
The supernatural element, the monster, the Babadook, is wholly unnecessary. The film does not need this manifestation in order to be terrifying and deliver its message. That's a great thing! The film is able to carry itself without relying on a horror film manifestation to be successful. However, the film does use a monster and that is what makes it weird. The real story being told throughout the film is not difficult to discern at all. It is very much an overt text across the film and proudly states itself. You need not to read into subtext to get what the film is saying. Yet the film needs to have the Babadook present in order to carry through with its supernatural plot. Yet the audience is fully aware of what is going on.
The Babadook does not exist. It never existed. The film never tries to convince us otherwise. It is very plain that the mother has reached a breaking point and can no longer deal with raising her autistic child on her own. She has snapped. The film is obvious about this and it is never doubted for a second. Yet the film forces the Babadook monster upon us and it all seems so superficial, so unnecessary.
*END OF SPOILERS*
It great that the film didn't need the monster to be effective but it amounts to just that...the film didn't need the monster and thus suffers from having the monster. If the message was pushed more into the subtext realm and really used the monster to deliver the metaphor perhaps the film would have been more successful. Perhaps the raw power and emotional urgency would have been lost and the film would have been yet another film that just exists and doesn't demand attention. The pendulum could have swung both ways. This leaves the only other option: the film is perfect as it is and viewers can choice to swing either way on the enjoyment scale.
The film does have a very strong emotional heft to it as well that reaches out to the audience. We feel for these two characters, entirely and completely. However, they aren't relatable. The child is annoying and screechy and there's no way that we could identify with him and not once does the film try to get us to care for him. However, the child is obvious autistic or otherwise inhibited in some fashion. All of a sudden you feel pretty shitty for thinking him to be an annoying shit who needs his ass beat, huh? As you should. That's what makes him sympathetic. He is handicapped in some fashion and his mother refuses to acknowledge it and seek help, his peers and mentors refuse to consider that possibility and treat the child as a problem and someone who just needs to be beat, or his mother does, one or the other. The world is cold and uncaring to the boy, yet he doesn't deserve that treatment. Look at how society treats the autistic and handicapped. It's pretty fucked up until the children are officially labeled as such. Society has no tolerance unless something is labeled appropriately.
Essie Davis is strongly sympathetic as well. She doesn't know how to deal with raising an autistic child on her own. The film does not try to state that she needs a man, though her friends are quick to say so. Parenting has its trials and tribulations, it can break even the strongest person, it would definitely be more difficult for someone in Essie Davis' position. The film frames all of this perfectly and how you understand the situation these characters live in daily is crucial to the sympathetic impact. You need to care about the characters in order for the film to work, and you need to see their situation in order to do so, not just who they are as characters.
Powerful stuff lies within the precise 90 minute runtime of The Babadook. Stuff that can reach out and crush you and terrify you. The insistence on using the monster creates a weird air around the film but one thing is without doubt: the monster is fucking scary as hell. Everything about this film is scary as hell on an aesthetic level. The way everything moves, the way the Babadook looks and speaks, it's so fucking good. The Babadook is undeniably an extremely original horror film and has a clear vision in its execution. This is a great film that should be sought out. But I can't argue too much if someone doesn't like the film as much as many others have since its release. But we just have to talk through the issues; it's a great film. Bottom line.