The Babadook (2014); written and directed by Jennifer Kent

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3/4s of the way through The Babadook, I thought to myself, wildly, “I can’t take much more of this.”

I was desperate for it all to be over with.

One of the reasons The Babadook is so effective is that it is not just about the scares in the film, which are well-done and legitimately frightening. It is that The Babadook so clearly sets up what it is REALLY interested in, from the very first sequence. The Babadook is about some primal shit, man, stuff having to do with motherhood, grief, being a widow, being unable to let go, parenting a difficult child, and the sort of We Need to Talk About Kevin uneasiness of maybe having some unkind thoughts about your own offspring – and how destabilizing that situation can be. The Babadook is also one of the most acute and accurate depictions of sleep deprivation I have ever seen. As the film careens on, relentlessly, sleep becomes more and more of an issue for mother (Essie Davis) and son (Noah Wiseman, 6 or 7 years old, and completely extraordinary). Sleep deprivation brings with it emotional turmoil, frayed nerves, and, in some cases, psychosis. Mother and son are worn down to the nub by it, holed up in their depressing house, terrified of those who try to gain entryway. Nobody means well. Everyone is out to get them.

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Often, such set ups (anxious domestic life, buried anger, unincorporated loss, nervous parenting, whatever) are used as shorthand devices in film, manipulative and sketched-in only. It’s cheap, in other words. But in The Babadook, the emotional backstory is not a device. It is the film’s engine; it’s what it is really about. The film is ruthless in its commitment to those themes.

Visually, the movie is superb, that house, with its dark grey walls and creaking staircases, and impenetrable shadows, starting to feel like the prison that it is. And little Noah Wiseman is brilliant. He is one of the reallest little boys in cinema in recent memory: difficult, loud, confrontational, needy, traumatized. He is not lovable (aside from the fact that he is an innocent child: being lovable is another thing altogether and I am sure many parents are aggravated beyond belief by their own offspring, and then feel the resultant guilt and fear about even HAVING those feelings.) He is a handful, that’s for sure, and his mother is at her wits’ end. He is so terrified of monsters that he will not let her sleep. He badgers her, he fights back, he pleads, he expresses terror at her leaving him, he has built makeshift weapons, crossbows and catapults, in order to fight the monsters in his bedroom. Mother and son really aren’t welcome in other people’s homes anymore because Samuel is such a problem. He frightens other children. He almost kills one child by pushing her out of her own treehouse. Mother doesn’t know what to do anymore. The Babadook does not sentimentalize little Samuel, and it also does not make him into one of those “creepy kids” so common in cinema. He feels extremely real, and there’s one scene where he lies with his head in his mother’s lap, wailing and writhing in exhausted horror, and it was positively devastating to witness.

William Friedkin Tweeted:

Powerful words there, from the director of The Exorcist.

The Babadook unleashes emotions that are truly operatic in intensity, the underground ocean of love and anxiety and grief, experienced by this small family unit. When the screams finally come, when the horror is finally faced, it is as terrible as everyone had feared. But what was truly profound was the sentiment coming directly on the heels of the horror: Can you incorporate this into your understanding of yourself and your life? Banishing the horror to the closet or the basement will not get rid of it. You must face it. You must live with it. Only then can it be contained, managed.

There is no bright sunny peaceful day in the future. The Babadook suggests that total peace is impossible, anyway. Life is tougher than that. Parenting is tougher than that. There are losses that mark us forever. There are situations from which we cannot recover. Ever.

So what then? What is one supposed to do with that? How do we live with the unlivable? How do we incorporate the darkness into how we understand the world and our place in it?

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The Babadook is brilliant, emotionally harrowing and relentlessly honest.

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23 Responses to The Babadook (2014); written and directed by Jennifer Kent

  1. stevie says:

    Yes, yes, indeed it is. This movie had more to do with the relationship between my mother and myself then any other movie I’ve ever seen. Not that we were quite that far along in our shared sleepless agony, but the exhaustion……the hope that with a good night’s sleep, we will able to derail this trajectory into the abyss. The kid is extraordinary, but Essie Davis! At first I didn’t recognize her, then remembered with shock that she played Vermeer’s wife in Girl with a Pearl Earring, and was as emotionally naked in that movie as she is here. Hopeless tortured exhaustion. Brilliant!

    Love, stevie xxx

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – I am so excited you saw it.

      Wow, “shared sleepless agony” … wasn’t that just harrowing??

      Essie Davis was absolutely brilliant – and I, too, had forgotten that other role. Her FACE – so often the camera was right up in her grill – so close – and her emotional exhaustion and complete agony and helplessness was as claustrophobic as that damn house.

      And the child!! How did they GET this little boy? He was incredible.

      // This movie had more to do with the relationship between my mother and myself then any other movie I’ve ever seen. //

      Amazing. Such primal parental stuff.

      • sheila says:

        I also loved the bitchy judgey other mothers at the birthday party, staring at her with pity, trying to be “lovely” to her, but just reeking of condescension.

        Sleep deprivation makes those things into monstrous affronts, as opposed to minor annoyances.

  2. sheila says:

    and how about that pop-up book? Was that not one of the most gorgeous and effective and disturbing props you’ve ever seen? I stayed through the credits to see who made that book. Alex Juhasz. Hats off.

  3. Stevie says:

    Oh yes! I had to see it once I read your comments and was delighted to find it available on demand. Wow, what an experience. Everything and everyone you mentioned made a huge impact for me. I am still freaked out about it. Essie Davis’s face is haunting me. When I saw Girl With a Pearl Earring, I remember thinking she so exactly fit the era that she probably couldn’t pull off a contemporary role, but boy, did she ever! I wanted to comfort her, slap her, administer Propofil and scream at her, all at once. Same with the kid – I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a child depicted with such complexity in a movie, except perhaps Patty Duke’s Helen Keller.

    I’m so glad you mentioned the pop-up book. Brilliant! Definitely goes in the Meaningful Prop Hall of Fame (along with, what? Nicholson’s “all work and no play” script from The Shining?).

    The enormous complexity of the mother-son relationship here, the love/hate/fear/anxiety/depression/panic emerging from the dank fog of sleep deprivation – holy crap!

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – I know, that little boy was just amazing. When he was writhing around in her lap, after she made the mistake of reading him The Babadook …. My God. I loved that they didn’t make him sweet or creepy. He was just exhausted and traumatized, a real person. And you could definitely understand why she had HAD it with him. So complex!!

      Now that I’ve seen the film, I am going to go track down all the interviews with Jennifer Kent – I’d love to hear her thoughts on the whole thing, and her anecdotes, as well as see if she discussed the making of that terrifying pop-up book.

      So glad you saw it!

      xoxo

  4. stevie says:

    I’m so glad you directed me to see it through this incredible blog! You have led me to read the most amazing books and see the most amazing movies, often material I would not have known about or pursued on my own. You enrich my life every day, dear friend! Xxx stevie

    • sheila says:

      Stevie – I love and miss you. Please say hello to your menagerie of animals for me. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season. xoxo

  5. Rory says:

    3/4s of the way through The Babadook, I thought to myself, wildly, “I can’t take much more of this.”

    I was desperate for it all to be over with.

    I felt exactly the same way. It was relentless.

    In the end, it seemed to me to be a brilliant study of depression – or, perhaps, more precisely, post-traumatic stress disorder. It wasn’t just that her h (oops, I’m not sure how much I can say…) It wasn’t just that something had happened to her, but that it had happened in a most shocking way. And now she was trying to get on with her life, but her mind and body were not allowing her to do that.

    The book appears seemingly of its own accord, and all its words are a projection of her own fear – that if she faces what happened it will kill her. And yet face it she must.

    I must watch it again. I think it might be easier the second time around…maybe.

    • sheila says:

      Rory –

      And how about how it resolves itself? Trying not to spoil it – but it seemed to me perfect, and completely in accord with what the rest of the film was presenting: not just the scares, but the reality of what happens when you try to shut out trauma. Definitely PTSD – completely undiagnosed, un-treated – the fact that she felt she had to defend herself to her friend: “I never talk about him anymore!” As though never talking about him is a good thing. Of course, in our society – we have SUCH a problem with grief, and the grieving – we expect them to be back at work, 100% operational, the weekend after the funeral. It’s inhuman.

      So that small coda – where we see how she has decided to deal with the Babadook – I thought: Wow. This movie really WENT there. It had the courage of its convictions!!

      I’m not sure I can watch it again though!! :)

  6. Desirae says:

    A Girl Walks Alone at Night is unfortunately not playing in my area but this one is and I’m seeing it this weekend. Now I’m even more excited.

    “The Babadook is also one of the most acute and accurate depictions of sleep deprivation I have ever seen.”

    I really do not think that people who don’t experience sleep deprivation understand how terrifying it is. It’s not like being sleepy, or even really tired. It effects every waking moment. It can feel like it’s going to kill you – it CAN kill you! I for one get completely paranoid and jittery when I’m having a bout of bad insomnia (as opposed to mild insomnia, which is just normal for me). It really is a form of temporary insanity. Like, literally – I was once awake for three days straight and actually had a hallucination. A mild one, but still. Yet people will act like I just need to go to bed earlier. It is my most pressing health issue and I’ve had it my whole life.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae –

      // I really do not think that people who don’t experience sleep deprivation understand how terrifying it is. //

      Cosign. I am so sorry you have struggled with this issue – I understand how terrifying it is! Getting my sleep in order has been the #1 health priority for me since I got diagnosed and it has been a full-time job. I still struggle. Melatonin has really helped. And yes: people who do not struggle in that way have a really hard time grasping the concept of what it means, and what it feels like.

      I could show them The Babadook and say, “Here. THIS is what it feels like.”

      Once you see the movie, would love to hear your thoughts!

  7. Desirae says:

    Okay, so I’ve seen it and I LOVED it. This movie is an amazing example of what horror movies can really be if the people making them aren’t lazy (as they unfortunately often are).

    So much to talk about. Yet I don’t want to spoil anyone either. First off: the visual design in this movie. That set is spectacular. The house is a coffin. There are unnecessary mirrors everywhere and coats and dresses hanging off everything. I would never want to walk around there at night, because everywhere you look is a creepy shape. I love what they did with Amelia’s costumes, too – they’re all slightly old fashioned in a way that makes her look both fragile and totally out of place. When she’s in the kitchen with those suburban moms with their sleek hair and matching outfits she looks like an alien.

    The book, though. It was scary enough the first time around but when it comes back … brrrr. Ingenious design. Most effective movie prop I’ve seen in years and a work of art in itself. It looks almost like a child could have drawn it – but not QUITE. The Babadook himself is perfect, too. Like something Gorey would invent after having a night terror. There’s a fairytale quality to the whole thing. Like the Erlkonig, or Mr. Fox.

    And it has the best depiction of chronic sleep deprivation I’ve ever seen. The building panic and paranoia of it, the way it screws with everything in your life, and most of all the way the perception of time goes to hell. Time moves either very slowly or bizarrely fast when a person is exhausted. When Amelia is lying in bed and there’s that little shimmery effect and suddenly it’s 9 in the morning – I know that intimately. I have sometimes gotten out of bed in the morning and had no idea whether I slept or not.

    The acting is so good I don’t know where to start. Noah Wiseman is an extraordinary, extraordinary find. He’s so naturalistic that I became worried for him. Like, was he okay, this little boy, doing this movie? Is he okay?? The seizure – how does a child that young know how to do that?

    And the things Essie Davis can do with her face and voice are completely uncanny. The most disturbing part of the whole movie may be when she sees herself looking out of the window on that newscast. Frankly the expression on her face doesn’t even look human. She is completely uninterested in protecting herself. Just a totally balls to the wall, physical performance.

    It’s so well written. The characters are all allowed to be complex, breathing human beings – none of them are horror movie stereotypes. And the ending was exactly right.

    As the lights were coming back on in the theater someone said, “That was really different”. And it is. It’s really different.

  8. sheila says:

    Desirae –

    Yay, so psyched you saw it!! Great thoughts!

    That house really was amazing. The production design and color scheme was superb. It was so gloomy. And yes, the clothes hanging on the walls. Horrible. How about when she goes to make a police report and sees the guy’s coat hanging on the wall?

    So simple, and yet so terrifying.

    The movie just WORKS. It sets its own tone, its own mood, its own symbols – and we are then caught up in it. It really forces us into its world-view. That’s why it felt so relentless. How could a simple black coat hanging on the wall be so frightening??

    Maybe the most harrowing scene was when she crashes the car – just those couple of cuts beforehand – when the Babadook appears – and her howling up at the ceiling of the car … My God. It was too much.

    I like your observation about her costumes. Yes, especially seen in contrast with the other mums, and their perfect-ness – she was another entity altogether. “The hardest thing is for me to get time to go to the gym …” says one.

    The book was AWFUL. Incredible design. The thick-ness of the pages – how it seemed hand-made somehow – also like the pastels of those pictures would smudge. It felt thick on the page, those black shadows. The book is so crucial – amazing design. The sound of it too, the sound of those pages, and the pop-up elements … It was very gritty.

    // When Amelia is lying in bed and there’s that little shimmery effect and suddenly it’s 9 in the morning – I know that intimately. //

    Ugh, that was a harrowing moment. That poor woman.

    I also found myself worrying about that little boy. I have no idea how he knew how to do any of that. It was so real. He was a child, so he couldn’t express himself articulately – and so he tried to get through to his mum in the best way he knew how. By badgering her, by yelling at her. Behind it, was real fear. And concern for her too. These are some dark dark themes. I am so curious to know how Jennifer Kent worked with him (also how she found him – how she could tell that this little boy would be up to it.)

  9. Desirae says:

    Oh look, Sheila; you can order the book. How nice:

    http://thebabadook.com/

    Dare you.

  10. bainer says:

    Finally saw “The Babadook”. There was so much in it; grief, dealing with trauma – as you mentioned, Sheila – sleep deprivation and motherhood. What jumped out at me was how female the experience was: the mother isn’t alone for a minute. The boy is on her, literally, all night. She doesn’t even have a moment with her vibrator before he’s pouncing on her. And, then during the day, she spends her time looking after other needy people, at the old people’s beck and call. As much about mothering young children, it could easily be about menopausal years. So many women of a certain age are torn between caring for aging parents and children with no time for themselves. “What did you use to write?” The other women ask, the ones who have trouble finding time for the gym. At least they, presumably, have husbands to help carry the load, financially at least. Although a husband or partner can feel as demanding as a child, needing as they do.
    The Babadook is never gone, love it. This is how the Aussies deal with their inner demons, apparently.

    • sheila says:

      Bainer – I love your thoughts on how The Babadook immerses us in her reality – a woman who is not allowed to sleep, relax, have ANY time to herself – and the toll (understatement) that that takes. She is sucked DRY. I watched her take out that vibrator, and felt a sense of commiseration and happiness for her – that at least she can have this moment, and a stress-relieving release – but NO! She was thwarted! Cumulatively, that energy was absolutely devastating. I was desperate for her to get some sleep, some relief.

      And that outsider-feeling she got with the other Mums … the pitying way they looked at her – I don’t know. Whether or not one has children, I imagine anyone can relate to that – although being judged by other mothers for your own faults is (I know from friends) shattering. Or, it can be (especially if you are sleep-deprived).

      It was so disturbing.

      and yes: one cannot get rid of the Babadook. Great, right??

      That’s life. Really quite profound.

  11. Jessie says:

    Absolutely bainer! I have a worm farm going night and day to keep those buggers sated!

  12. bainer says:

    Jessie- I sense a business opportunity!

  13. Jessie says:

    Yes, a valuable labour-saving device for those of us without children to dig them up for us! I’ll make a mint!

  14. sheila says:

    For those of us who do not have basements, we must figure out alternative ways to contain our Babadooks. Suggestions welcome.

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