THE BABADOOK’s Lost Opportunity
Thanks to the magic of Amazon Instant Video, I watched the new Australian independent horror film The Babadook two nights in a row. I just wanted to briefly share my thoughts on it. Up here, I’ll be sharing my spoiler-free thoughts. Spoilers will be hidden further down — after a page break. Note that, in addition to discussing spoilers for The Babadook, I’ll also be discussing spoilers for Adam Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die , Kubrick’s The Shining , and Friedkin’s The Exorcist as I briefly compare the films to each other.
So, without any further ado, on to my review…
First of all I want to say that (despite its problems) I do recommend watching The Babadook. Essie Davis’ performance as Amelia is one of the more riveting portrayals of mental collapse that I’ve ever watched on film. Superior, even, to Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The tone of the film is exceedingly creepy, and managed to disturb me (and I don’t disturb easily). The second act of the film surges with a sort of nightmare energy that few horror films ever manage to capture. I found that, even after watching the film, it would run through my mind and get to me. The creepiness lingered well into the night. The last film to have that effect on me was 2001’s Session 9.
Moreover, I think The Babadook is (in part) a parable for dealing with trauma. Amelia tries to suppress her grief and rage about the death of her husband in a car accident, which she witnessed seven years ago. The Babadook, as I see it, is grief and rage personified. As a story book in the film says, “you can’t get rid of the Babadook”. In other words, you can’t get rid of grief and the rage that accompanies it. You have to acknowledge grief, come to terms with it (or else, it gets the best of you).
Gripping, compelling character-driven stuff.
….I think the film fucks up in the last ten minutes. Horribly, horribly fucks up.
While I know there’s enough ambiguity at work to make this debatable, my interpretation is that the film concludes with a happy ending. A cheaply-won happy ending. The victory over the Babadook is just too easy, and the family’s restoration to safety is just too fast (and consequence-free) to be believable.
Essie Davis’ performance of Amelia’s descent into madness is the highlight of this film. It’s set up well by the events at her son’s school and her workplace and it’s set up well by her continued sleep deprivation. Her madness has been baking in the oven at 350 degrees for an hour, so to speak. By the time it reaches its peak, it’s convincing.
But her restoration to something close to wholeness happens in a matter of minutes. We’re not adequately prepared for it. It’s not set up well. It happens with almost no costs to the family. (Yes, during her madness — or, if you prefer, possession — she kills the family dog, but she faces no consequences for this and this is swept under the rug in the happy ending. No cop comes to arrest her for animal cruelty. We don’t even see the poor pooch’s grave.)
So, the last ten minutes of the film undermine the preceding eighty minutes of the film. It really was disappointing. As a viewer, I felt like there was a bait and switch going on. I was lured into Davis’ portrayal of madness but, in the end, was told by the filmmakers that her madness (and Davis’ performance) really didn’t matter because of the power of love or good vibes or kumbaya or whatever saved her.
The film would have been better if it had been darker. The first eighty minutes of the film logically demand a darker ending. And yet, the film ends up pulling its punch.
This is the second film I’ve seen in the last few weeks that has done this (the first was Adam Wingard’s 2010 film A Horrible Way to Die, which also pulled its punch at the last possible moment, thus undercutting its effectiveness).
What’s going on out there? In the past, even major Hollywood films like The Shining would kill off a main character. Even in The Exorcist, victory over the demon comes only after a great deal of struggle (and a little loss of life). No quick fixes, in either. Why can’t more of today’s filmmakers follow-through with darker endings? Are today’s audiences all precious little snowflakes who will just clutch their pearls and faint if they see the death of a character they care about?
Anyway…gotta run. But just wanted to share my two cents.