Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Babadook (2013) Movie Thoughts

Somewhere in South Australia, single mother, Amelia Vannick(Essie Davis) has seen better years.

Working at a nursing home for the elderly , struggling to raise her hyperactive six year old son, Samuel(Noah Wiseman) has begun to reach a breaking point. The loss of the boy's father on the way to his delivery in an accident has continued to haunt them both. Now manifesting itself in little Sam's borderline aggressive clinginess and desperation to protect his mother from unseen beasts. From uncomfortable hugs to improvised weapons wreaking havoc about every other corner of their lives, Amelia's life begins to resemble a classic powder keg situation as sleep deprivation begins to take hold. And it's about to get worse, when a mysterious pop-up book seems to magically appear on Sam's bookshelf. A sinister red book starring none other than a terrifying dark specter clad in black, known only as The Babadook. A book that promises to never go away, until the unthinkable has consumed them both.

Enter Jennifer Kent's small scale, but primally chilling allegory that proves beyond all doubt, that good horror is a game of understanding the terrors of daily life. From the opening frames on, there is no doubt that what we're experiencing is something that is so familiar, frankly because it is so close to so many of us. From Amelia's daily troubles of raising a son who seems on the brink every other moment, to working surrounded by reminders of what life she has forsaken to raise him, is rife with baggage so heavy that it's no wonder horror comes knocking. It's bad enough that the boy cannot celebrate his birthday on the day, but must share parties with the daughter of Amelia's seemingly more mobile sister, Claire. And that Sam's erratic behavior has garnered some disciplinary problems at school. Matters are reaching almost oppressive levels, and this is before any hint of the supernatural even arises. We are dropped square into the worst possible single parenthood scenario's deep waters before the dreaded shark arrives. And when he does, it feels like a powerful , inescapable abyss that scares in ways that few have in decades.

Dropped so sadistically into a spiritual deep end, while cruel in some ways, is precisely where the film lives and dies. There is a muted color palette that surrounds Amelia's life, like the last remnants of brightness to her world is on the verge of a fuse burnout. Right off the bat, we are in a place that is both cold, and disquieting. One of the many potent weapons in the film's arsenal, is something far too many pieces of horror tend to forget, environmental and lighting design. We are host to a sight and sound universe that is sensitive to Amelia's plight. It only bolsters the tension as her life begins to resemble a Von Trier film, complete with endless supernatural amounts of emotional torment. (which made the revelation that Kent spent some time studying/working with the danish auteur, make grand sense) And when we find ourselves largely trapped within the chilly halls of their home, the lighting and art direction take on a quiet, painterly menace that tightens its grip throughout. It only makes the unforgiving blackness of our titular villain that much more powerful. The film understands the history of horror, and milks it largely to great effect.

 But the crowning jewels of the film are truly Davis and Wiseman, who conjure up some truly astonishing performances as a tattered family on the verge of tragedy. Davis' Amelia, is such a delicate, demanding piece of work that could co easily have gone comic in other hands, but she comes off as completely relatable as she is granted every logical stage to an almost inevitable form when her resent and grief boils over. We can grieve for her, as well as beg for her to stop, and not for a moment lose that gravity. And on that note, she could not be more blessed in having Wiseman, who's Sam, is both one of the most unnerving and one of the most frighteningly effective child performances I have ever experienced. When he is a terror, he is a terror. And when he is achingly vulnerable, it's deeply uncomfortable. The film is so diabolical in some manners, that it's a miracle of casting that any kid would be able to deliver such incredible work.

It's a most interesting marriage, taking the spirit of scary tales from the past, transposing them to something as universal as single parenthood. So easily, the film could have taken a more exploitative tack. And yet the character sensitivity here never lets us the viewers off the hook. We are every bit as complicit by playing the voyeur to what is ostensibly something that happens more commonly than we care to let in. It's also telling that the film's stylings harken to the days when such parenthood was just becoming commonplace. As a child of a single parent, I too can see how the dynamic between mother and son could reach such troublesome lows. And considering that the children of that age are now the age of Amelia, the shoe has finally exchanged feet, and it is a sobering reminder. It's no understatement. This is classic, "old school", down to the marrow horror told with a 1970s performance and editing sensibility, wrapped in something altogether too understandable. Even as The Babadook chooses to go a more traditional genre route, it is done with class and empathy. Because, as the nightmare-inducing pop-up book suggests, the horror is already here, and it's not likely to ever go away.

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