Occasionally, audiences are given a horror movie so raw with emotion, so provocative in its themes, and so sophisticated in its scares that it raises the bar on the genre. Jennifer Kent's The Babadook is such a film. Delivering a gut-punch of dread, while unfurling a taboo topic with unflinching portrayals, it'll leave you breathless.
Essie Davis stars as Amelia, a widowed single-mom who is struggling to raise her 10-year-old son, Sam (Noah Wiseman), alone. The boy has behavioral problems that isolate her from friends and family, but his new obsession about monsters invading their home is pushing Amelia to the brink. Things go from bad to unbearable when Sam discovers a pop-up book, "Mister Babadook," that unleashes a relentless and evil creature only Sam can see.
The narrative of mother versus monster is a recurring one in horror. However, the sickening and mesmerizing twist here is that Amelia hates her son. She loves him, too. But having lost her husband the day Sam was born, her child's need for her is suffocating, sometimes literally so, as he claws himself around her as he sleeps, one small hand clutching her throat! Disliking your child is a topic too taboo for most to ever say aloud. But this wickedly smart thriller takes a cue from its littler terror and grabs the concept by the throat, and won't let go.
Remarkably, The Babadook doesn't judge Amelia for her anger towards Sam. Those shots of her clingy kid come along with plot points of worrisome behavior as well as his tenacious blood-curdling screams. You can understand why she struggles to care for this boy, who is so foreign to her even if he is hers. The torment of the Babadook will pull them together or tear them apart, and watching that conflict unfold is electrifying thanks to the impeccable performances of its leads. Newcomer Noah Wiseman makes incredible turns from gratingly unhinged, to bravely tender, achieving an arc that redeems him to the audience. (It's no small feat considering his early outbursts.) But Essie Davis is in a whole other league.
In a year that's offered so few standout leading lady performances, critical buzz has begun backing Davis as a contender for Oscar gold. That would of course require the Academy to get over their long-held genre-bias. But regardless of their hang-ups, Davis deserves a nomination. As Amelia, she fearlessly digs into a cagey character, whose conflicting desires to be a good mother and to have time for herself are worked out in a nightmarish scenario. So much more than looking frightened, or caterwauling, Davis' performance is one of anxiety, rage, and compassion, all shaken together to make something riveting, disturbing and unforgettable.
The Babadook is writer-director Jennifer Kent's first feature-length film. And that's absolutely insane. Her skill for film language, establishing set geography, developing tension, and creating complex characters is far beyond what you'd expect from a first-timer. The Babadook is damn-near perfect. And horror connoisseurs better take notice.
She paints her film in cool colors, reminiscent of dark fairy tales. The corners of rooms are inky with threatening shadows. Under her direction, a quiet suburban home becomes a claustrophobic cave. The sound design throbs with danger and doom, from thumps on the walls to the goose-bump-inducing whisper of the name "Ba-ba-dook!" The creature design of her titular beast is instantly iconic. With scares that will have audiences hiding behind their hands or shrieking for help, The Babadook is easily the best horror film of 2014. But bolstered by knockout performances, and a mind-bending narrative beautifully shot and colored, The Babadook is so much more. It's one of the best films of the year.