Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
In “The Babadook,” Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent marries the haunted house film to the psychological thriller. It’s a potent union, one that allows her to explore inward-looking themes related to grief and motherhood while delivering the tropes demanded by fans of the “Insidious” and “Sinster” franchises. But despite the nods to traditional spookers, Kent’s touch is unique: she, cinematographer Radek Ludczuk, and editor Simon Njoo favor rhythm and juxtaposition over the long-take sinuousness one expects of a genre in which real-time identification with a hauntee is the norm. Here the action is inseparable from the space inside mom Amelia’s head, and the horrors slide onto the screen as though they’ve been dislodged from the peripheries of your consciousness. The picture is expressionistic without being dreamlike; its sleep-deprived jangliness may remind you of “Repulsion” or Friedkin’s “Bug.”
The titular nasty is a figure out of a children’s book, a red-covered slab that mysteriously appears one day in the room of Amelia’s son Samuel. As kids will, Samuel develops a fixation with the book, and as his attachment to it grows the film’s look begins to dovetail with the minimalistic menace of the tome’s seemingly hand-drawn illustrations. (Production designer Alex Holmes is careful not to overdo it: by the time you notice echoes of the book’s design in the decor of Amelia’s home, you’ve succumbed to his strategy.) Soon the Babadook seems all too real, and we start to develop an inkling of what this boogeyman represents. Though at first he seems an outgrowth of Samuel’s youthful awkwardness, by the film’s final third it’s clear that he’s also a manifestation of Amelia’s grief over the loss of her husband, who died en route to the hospital on the occasion of Samuel’s birth. The Babadook lurks like a parasite in the shared imagination of mother and son: he’s the dead father with whom neither has reckoned.
This muddling of Amelia’s and Samuel’s psyches — the two are joined at the neurosis — is part of what makes “The Babadook” so interesting. The movie opens with the pair in bed; together yet somehow separate, they’re like lovers going through a rough patch. It’s a motif that Kent returns to continually; at one point Samuel even jumps onto Amelia’s bed while she’s masturbating, cutting her off mid-crescendo. I hate to call the picture Oedipal, because there is little in it that is suggestive of fate, issues of heredity, or the Greeks, but it’s clear that Kent wants to get at the way in which motherhood, sex, and emotional dependency are all mixed up at the subatomic level. What she comes up with is uniquely feminine — as evocative of the messiness of motherhood as “Eraserhead” is of the messiness of fatherhood.
There’s no denying that “The Babadook” contains a unique depiction of single motherhood. It’s devoid of insipid “you go girl” posturing. Perhaps more importantly, the story provides no salve for the wound caused by the missing dad. (Even at the movie’s end, he remains a fearsome, ravenous presence.) Perhaps this isn’t surprising: With its emphasis on the nuclear family, the neutralization of threats, and the preservation of normality, the haunted house picture has always been somewhat traditionalist, a fact which helps explain why the most memorable movie families of recent years have been those featured in horror films. When the bogeys come, the family unit is forced into focus in a way that highlights its comforts as well as its tensions.
Kent’s eye for social dynamics is felt throughout the movie. In her characterization of Samuel, for instance, she displays a keen understanding of little boys. In a nod to the horror genre’s creepy-kid trope, Samuel is a nightmare problem child, but he’s also a sympathetic prisoner of a female-dominated universe. His mother does her best to tolerate his horseplay and his injury-causing contraptions, but to his teachers and playmates they’re existential threats. Of course, Samuel is kept docile through medication (what kid isn’t these days?), and when mother and son finally retreat to their home — possibly for good — it’s framed as an escape from the persecution of school counselors and all-girl princess parties. In most films of this type the final third is heralded by the arrival of paranormal investigators or spiritualists. In “The Babadook” it’s a pair of social workers who come knocking at Amelia’s door. (And what is more frightening than social workers?)
The Samuel character wouldn’t work absent the performance of Noah Wiseman, who never seems less than totally in control of his freakiness. Whatever level of energy Kent asks for, he gives, and it’s damnably hard to catch him lurching in the transitions between vulnerable urchin and quasi-malevolent shrieker. But it’s Essie Davis’ Amelia on whom the effectiveness of “The Babadook” really depends: her wide (and wide-open) face is the portal through which we access the movie’s drama. And what a portal. There is scarcely a moment in which Davis’ physiognomy does not seem hot-wired to the internal trauma she’s presenting. Her performance has the bird-like sensitivity — that almost painful quality of over-susceptibility — that we associate with silent-film actresses. Yet she keeps Amelia rooted in a normality that would seem banal if it weren’t so unaffected. It prevents the characterization from tipping into abstraction.
Watching Davis I repeatedly thought of Giffith actress Mae Marsh, of whom Pauline Kael wrote:
She looks as if she could be a happy, sensual, ordinary woman. The tragedies that befall her are accidents that could happen to any of us, for she has never wanted more than common pleasures. There is a passage in “Intolerance” in which Mae Marsh, as a young mother who has had her baby taken away from her, grows so distraught that she becomes a voyeur, peeping in at windows to simper and smile at other people’s babies. It’s horrible to watch, because she has always seemed such a sane sort of girl. When Lillian Gish, trapped in the closet in “Broken Blossoms,” spins around in terror, we feel terror for all helpless, delicate beauty, but when Mae Marsh is buffeted by fate every ordinary person is in danger.
Davis has that same sympathetic sort of normality, and it grounds the movie. You hang in there because you want to see it preserved.