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.
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:
I've never seen a more terrifying film than THE BABADOOK. It will scare the hell out of you as it did me.
— William Friedkin (@WilliamFriedkin) December 1, 2014
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?
The Babadook is brilliant, emotionally harrowing and relentlessly honest.