Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Women in Horror: The Babadook

Amelia struggles daily with her existence as a single mom after her husband was killed in a car accident just before she gave birth to her only son, Sam. He has quite an imagination, creating monsters out of thin air to battle with homemade weapons and shriek in terror from before bed. His over the top and obnoxious behavior goes unchecked and, along with her struggle to cope with daily life, alienates most of the people in her life. Her son finds a book called The Babadook that frightens him and he becomes even more obsessed with alternately fighting the monster and being debilitated by fear because of the monster. His behavior reaches an unacceptable level and Amelia is simply at a loss. Her life is rapidly unraveling before her eyes and then she starts to think the Babadook might actually be real.

The Babadook is an amazing directorial debut that takes a powerful emotion and portrays it in a horrific and uncomfortable way. On the surface, Samuel is an insufferably annoying child and Amelia is a complacent mother, but there is so much going on beneath the surface. Even though seven years have passed since her husband's death, Amelia has not properly dealt with her grief. This manifests at first in normal, but unhealthy ways. Amelia is obviously completely miserable in almost every aspect of her life. Her relationship with her son is extremely strained on both ends. She constantly pushes her son away because he is entwined so much with her grief. His arrival into the world was marred by her husband's very violent death which she witnessed. Sam is a constant physical reminder of her loss and what she could have had if her husband had lived. Amelia's simultaneously loves her son and resents him for surviving instead of her husband. This also causes guilt that she isn't what a mother should be or feel how a mother should feel. To cope with her feelings, she shuts everything about her husband away and just pretends he never existed, even opting to skip celebrating her son's birthday. She never acknowledges her feelings to anyone including her son who shares the same grief.

Amelia's approach to her grief makes it impossible for anyone to connect with her. Her son works through his grief by being inappropriate: clinging to her as tight as possible, telling anyone who will listen about his dead father, being prone to loud and violent outbursts, and finally personifying their problems with the Babadook and attempting to save them by creating homemade weapons. Children are quite clever and he senses her resentment on some level which leads to the over the top clingy behavior. It only serves to reaffirm the cycle of Amelia's resentment and she pushes him away even more. In the first half of the film, Sam is insufferable and I feel so much for Amelia, but he is only trying to work through his own grief without any help. During the second half of the film, the roles reverse. Amelia's behavior becomes dangerous and erratic while Sam becomes the one simply struggling to survive. He becomes sweet and meek instead of the screaming hellion he was before, making Amelia's abuse all the more disturbing. Amelia also has problems connecting with other adults. Her friends are tired of her attitude and feel she should have been over it since it was seven years ago. Her son's behavior puts people in general off including random strangers, her best friend, and her coworkers. Her only lifeline is her kindly neighbor, but even that is severed once the Babadook shows up.

You might have noticed that I haven't mentioned the title character up until this point. This is because the Babadook is the personification of Amelia's grief. The specter is invisible at first and dismissed as another of Sam's games. As Sam's birthday and the anniversary of her husband's death grows closer, the Babadook's appearance and effects become stronger and stronger. Its first appearance is in a twisted children's book found in Amelia's house. The art is gorgeous and macabre, reminiscent of Edward Gorey. The story has Amelia killing her dog, her child, and then herself. One of the lines in the book is "You can't get rid of the Babadook." Since it's grief, there really is no escaping it. It's simply part of you and just going through the motions in life isn't always enough to overcome it. The creature is superbly done because we get glimpses of it here and there without too much or too little exposure.

The Babadook is tense and uncomfortable to watch right from the beginning. Essie Davis perfectly portrays Amelia's loving nature through her frustration, desperation, depression, and powerlessness. Noah Wiseman acts completely insufferable through the first half of the film and then manages to still have the viewers' sympathy during the second half. Jennifer Kent, the director and writer, has crafted this frighteningly relatable and thought provoking story that could happen to any one of us. To me, that's what makes the film viscerally frightening. The cinematography and music are on point and perfectly support the mood. I am eager to see more from Jennifer Kent and I consider this film my favorite of 2014.

My rating: 10/10 fishmuffins

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