“Did they really kill the wolf?” Six-year-old Samuel (Noah Wiseman) looks up at his mother, eyes wide. “Yes they did,” says Amelia (Essie Davis), because, of course, bedtime books don’t lie. Still, Samuel insists, “I’ll kill the monster when it comes. I’ll smash its head.”
His certainty is at once familiar and a little chilling, as is her struggle to accommodate his imagination and to reshape it. As The Babadook begins, Samuel declares himself his mother’s protector, armed with a crossbow-like weapon he’s fashioned himself and carries in a cumbersome backpack. His earnestness has a background, of course, having to do with a dead father, killed in a car accident en route to the hospital on the night Samuel was born. If Samuel doesn’t have this memory, Amelia does, provided here in a set of harrowing flashbacks-as-nightmares. That the first of these is introduced with an overhead, hovering view of Amelia on her bed sets up the film’s best trick, the seeming sameness of Amelia’s internal and external lives.
The Babadook, recent winner of the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best First Feature, focuses both of those lives through Amelia’s devotion to her boy. This isn’t to say it’s only about how disturbing it can be to be a mom; it’s also not only about how difficult it can be to be a mom to a child who reminds you each day of your most dire trauma, the violent loss of your partner, a moment replayed on bad nights in slow motion and in excruciatingly colorful detail.
The film is also about institutions that fail to serve, like schools without the resources to look after extraordinary kids or places of employment, like the nursing home where Amelia tends to elderly patients with dementia, until she’s no longer able to cover up her own lack of sleep and inability to function. These institutions include as well the doctor who prescribes medication to help Samuel to sleep, while his name is on a waiting list to see a therapist, or the police station where she goes to report a harassing event, only to be dismissed by uniformed cops showing pointedly masculine disdain.
This string of episodes is triggered by the appearance of a particular monster, the Babadook. A figure in a cap and top hat who arrives via a bedtime storybook, he becomes ever more oppressive and large, traversing space and time, his menace related to dead dad but also to live mom. The book itself is elaborately sinister, with pop-ups and cut-outs and changing text and images, so odd and odious that you might share Samuel’s response, a simultaneous fear and fascination. It’s the sort of response that follows effectively scary stories, including this movie, the sort that makes monsters resonate, whether they wear top hats, hooks for hands or knives for fingers. The Babadook is thus like and unlike all monsters: killed, maybe, but never quite as killed as you might have hoped.
As Amelia experiences such a mix of hope and fear in The Babadook, she’s surrounded by people who can’t understand, from her disapproving sister (Hayley MacElhinney), her kindly neighbor Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), and her solicitous but clueless coworker (Daniel Henshall). Each of her efforts to find support leaves Amelia more alone, the very walls of her tiny home seeming to close on her, as well as generate an army of cockroaches. As she drags the refrigerator across the linoleum in order to dig at the paint and plaster, she’s briefly distracted by a visit from Child Services, the sniffy suited assessors making visible yet again that what her maternal skills are lacking. To them, she’s not living up to abstract expectations.
It’s this anxiety that underlies her nightmare, her guilt over the dead husband, her fear that Samuel’s fits and violence are somehow her fault. Amelia doesn’t tell this story, but she doesn’t have to. The Babadook shows up to embody it for her, to frighten her son, to act out her frustrations, to slide into her throat and fill her up with black goo.
That she and Samuel stick by one another no matter how monstrous either might seem to someone else recalls other, more standard horror sagas, as mother and son fight back demons and possessions and basements where the lights never work. But for Amelia and Samuel, a resolution remains elusive. It’s neither the one they seek nor the one you expect, but it makes a creepy sort of sense, respectful of their shared and messy lives, internal and external.