There are monsters that live under the bed and monsters that live in your head, and “The Babadook” blurs the difference until you can’t tell which is which. A stylish, confident debut feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent, the movie walks and talks like a horror film — things-that-go-bump-in-the-night division — but it jangles your emotions as much as your nerves, and it hangs in the air for a long time afterward, the way the best bad dreams do.
Above all, “The Babadook” uses the horror genre to create an oblique metaphor for the seismic pressures single mothers contend with on a daily basis. It’s tough at times to decide who’s the worse nightmare, 6-year-old Sam (Noah Wiseman) or the boogeyman he calls the Babadook. The boy’s a handful, obsessed with magic, monsters, and handmade weapons systems; he’s the kind of weirdly intelligent, out-of-control kid who will shout, “Mom! Mom! MOMMM!” while standing on top of a swing set.
His mother, Amelia (Essie Davis), is a pale, wan thing, a widow — her husband (Benjamin Winspear) died in a car crash on the way to deliver baby Sam at the hospital — who can barely hold it together dealing with Sam’s outbursts at school and her nursing job in an assisted living facility. When she reads her son a bedtime story that seems to have mysteriously appeared on his bookshelf — a nasty pop-up book about a top-hatted, long-fingered baddie called the Babadook — the tension in the household ratchets up several notches. Sam’s behavior alienates teachers, relatives, other kids, and Amelia starts losing sleep. And maybe there is something lurking in the psychic crawlspaces of their home. Who put that shard of glass in Amelia’s soup? Sam? The Babadook? Amelia herself?
Filmgoers with long memories may be put in mind of Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve slowly lost her marbles during a long weekend in a London flat. “The Babadook” is lighted with a similar sense of incipient psychosis, pools of darkness alternating with shafts of light that reveal something terrible or nothing at all. As Amelia becomes progressively unglued — either because the vengeful Babadook has invaded her soul or because she’s having the kind of nervous breakdown that leads to really, really bad headlines — the film manages to keep us off-balance while holding on to our sympathies. It’s a deft trick aided immeasurably by the two central performances, Davis showing Amelia’s strength and craziness growing in equal measure and Wiseman leavening a little boy’s fear with a son’s pity.
Is the Babadook real? Heard and felt more than seen, he’s a figure out of a Grimm cultural past (he could be Struwwelpeter’s big, bad brother) and Kent deploys her low-budget special effects with care. By the nail-shredding climax, Awfulness is definitely happening, but “The Babadook” remains a potent journey through the fears, anxieties, and repressed rages of motherhood. The ending, remarkably, gets to have it both ways, reminding us that some of the scariest monsters are the ones we learn to live with.
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