This will be a relatively short post because to say too much would potentially spoil elements of The Babadook for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Suffice to say it is one of the most intelligent, fascinating, genuinely unsettling films I have seen in some time. Writer-director Jennifer Kent, adapting her short film, Monster, evokes a gothic atmosphere that verging on expressionistic as the widowed, Amelia (Essie Davis) negotiates the day to day rituals of everyday life and motherhood to 7 year old Samuel (Noah Wiseman). Samuel is an intense child. Highly intelligent, hyper aware and constantly on the look out for monsters that he believes threaten the safety of his mother. When the film opens, his insomnia, constant questions and outbursts of aggression are literally wearing out, the already exhausted, Amelia.
Samuel and Amelia don’t fit in with their social milieu or each other. The narrative establishes very early on that Amelia’s husband, Oscar (Ben Winspear) died the day Samuel was born and this has left mother and son with an awkward, slightly resentful co-dependency that suffocates and sustains them. Amelia loves her son but his vivid imagination, behavioural issues and constant demands are a weight that she has all but ceased being able to carry.
One night Samuel selects a strange, beautiful but frightening book from his bookshelf for Amelia to read as part of their nightly bedtime routine and the film commences to chronicle an eerie exploration of fear, dread and isolation. Director, Kent cleverly exploits all of our childish fears of things that go bump and the darkness at the bottom of the stairs.
Essie Davis gives a near perfect performance as Amelia. The character is lonely and alone but too exhausted to do anything about it. Everything about her in the early part of the film suggests the very essence of grief, fatigue and defeat. Her demeanour is of someone who is either on the verge of sobbing or has just ceased. The irony is that she never does and Davis expertly conveys the internal conflict for Amelia in loving Samuel while being completely drained by his presence.
As Samuel, Noah Wiseman is all at once infuriating, sympathetic, alienating and endearing. He strikes exactly the right note as he wearies even the audience with his anxiety and demands and then breaks our hearts with his vulnerability. Wiseman is one of those child actors that seem, at times, older than his years and then so child like that you realise he couldn’t be anything other than a 7 year old. Samuel never loses our sympathy as a character because he is completely aware that his very existence is contributing to his mother’s emotional decline. When he talks about protecting her, you sense, part of that protection is from him.
The film’s design is a feature particularly worthy of note. The production team has created an odd anachronistic, stark, old fashioned world occupied almost exclusively by Amelia and Samuel. The only glimpse we see of the touch points of contemporary society are when Amelia visits her sister or goes to the supermarket. Otherwise she and Samuel appear to live in a world, not to mention a home, that is unembellished, lacking colour, comfort and modern convenience.
There is not much more that can be said about The Babadook without giving away too much. It is a strange, absorbing, unnerving and incredibly well made film. It uses elements of allegory and expressionism to explore grief, loneliness, isolation and obligation. Part of its success as a thriller is that rather than rely on blood and gore for shock, it references our memory of the things that haunt us from childhood. That thing we know is behind a creaking door, the lights that mysteriously flicker and the monster we are sure hides under our bed at night.