Friday, May 29, 2015

The Babadook - Movie Review

The Babadook
Directed by Jennifer Kent

This is probably self-destructive for a blogger to say but: STOP READING THIS BLOG RIGHT NOW AND GO WATCH THE BABADOOK.  IT IS ON NETFLIX INSTANTVIEW, and if you don't have Netflix, I'm sure you can pay some exorbitant one-time price on some other website.

Point is: this is hands-down one of the best horror movies I've ever seen.  I have a deep, deep love for early German Expressionism and magic realism.  The Babadook scratches both of these itches in a most potent and brilliantly powerful way.  Further, I'm currently preggo, and am terrified of postpartum depression, so The Babadook hits home hard.  These two things, style and heart, are what set The Babadook apart from other scary movies (despite the fact that we're in the giddy throes of a horror renaissance).

Warning: This is not so much a review, as it is a long essay about the two things I loved the most about The Babadook.  There are far better reviews out there, and I don't think I can add to them.  Check them out if you'd like something more concise and review-y.

Synopsis: The Babadook is about a mother whose husband died in a car-wreck on the way to give birth to her son.  Seven-ish years later, the mother and son discover a children's book titled Mister Babadook, and soon the babadook is an all-too-real entity ruining their lives.  As the mother spirals into madness, both her life and her son's are in danger.

Part I:  Why the ending confuses people 

Or, Americans can't grok Magic Realism.

Let's start with the style.  The Babadook is impeccably made.  It's not merely put together well.  It doesn't just have excellent lighting and set-direction.  It isn't simply acted with a potency that reaches into your guts and rips out all your fears.  It is all these things and more.  The most thrilling thing about The Babadook (stylistically) is that it dwells deep in the land of expressionistic magic realism.  This is what leads to some of the more far-out sequences and what makes certain passages of The Babadook so unfathomably terrifying.  This is why the visual-effects are not "polished" (something Jennifer Kent did intentionally).  This is also why the ending confused so many hapless movie-goers.

I promise, I'm not about to spoil this.

Hi, Count Orlok!  I've missed you...

So what do I mean when I say expressionistic magic realism?  I'm probably going to botch this definition because I'm not a film or literary scholar, but bear with me.  In this movie, the babadook is absolutely real, but that is not what the movie is trying to say.  Kent's story is told using something magical (the babadook) to talk about something perfectly true and real in real life.  This is not the same as riding along on a premise about something supernatural that then has an undertone or subtext that is supposed to connect up to real life.  Kent is talking about mundane reality, using magic.  The point is not to walk away thinking babadooks are real, but to walk away thinking about the thing the babadook represents in an extremely real manner.

To get my point across, it might help for me to talk about the current state of horror movies and then explain how The Babadook deviates.  This movie does not come down on one side or the other in what I call "The Literalist Dilemma".  That is to say, 99% of American horror cinema falls into one category or the other in this dilemma.

One category is that GHOSTS ARE REAL.  This includes movies like Oculus that are very serious about the audience buying into the premise that supernatural stuff is real and that's just how this movie is gonna be.  Other examples are The Ring, The Exorcist, and, to reach for an uncommon example, the Friday the 13th movies.  These movies say "This is a supernatural train that will never happen in real life, so if you're not down with that- then get off now."

The other category is GHOSTS ARE NOT REAL.  These movies often end with a "twist" where the camera pans out to see the main character has been talking to themselves in an empty room the whole time.  There are no ghosts or monsters, it's all in their heads!  It has been the whole time!  Examples include Session 9, The House on Haunted Hill, and The Village  A friend of mine helpfully pointed out I could call this The Scooby-Doo, so that's its official name now.

Just wanted to share some of the best Scooby-Doo fanart by Dijonay with you. Never has Fred looked so good...

These two categories comprise the horns of The Literalist Dilemma.  In other words, the premise and the leverage of the twist of these movies are based on the audience taking the events depicted in the film literally.  There are literally ghosts or there are literally no ghosts, only madness and assholes. Put another way, these movies are CLEAR about whether they posit supernatural things or not.  By the end, the audience can be comfortable knowing which side of the dilemma the movie falls on, and process it accordingly.

Magic realism, however, throat-punches this dilemma right in its reductivist... throat.  This is why I've watched countless people tie themselves up in knots trying to "decipher" movies like Pan's Labyrinth.  The deciphering is an attempt to figure out which horn to stick the movie on, and magic realist movies staunchly resist this.  They blur the line between the reality and fantasy in such a way that it is unclear whether we are supposed to 'believe' magic actually happens in the movie.  Thus, getting obsessed with whether or not the babadook is a real monster is missing the point.

To highlight a finer point, there's a part of me that is tempted to refer to the babadook as 'metaphorical', but this leads into an easy trap laid by the Literalist Dilemma.  Oculus, for example, is ultimately about childhood trauma.  It tells a story where there are literally ghosts, but the ghosts are 'metaphorical' for traumatic memories.  The childhood trauma is a subtext that we ought to 'get' while the movie goes about its supernatural business.  This is often how value is found in horror movies at all.  We use bogeymen to address our real problems.  However, there is something distinct in magical realism that puts that metaphor up front.  The babadook is a tool, a symbol, for talking about postpartum depression, but is also real.  There are no 'two-levels' of thinking about the movie, because the babadook and the PPD exist on the same plane of reality here.

Or, the babadook is immediately representational, instead of subtextual.

This leads to confusion for people who don't have a way of processing film outside of the Literalist Binary.  Even my favorite reviewer, David Edelstein, seems to succumb to this in one of his few, tiny bits of criticism of the movie: stating that some viewers might think its metaphor too "obvious".  To rate metaphor in terms of obviousness isn't going to work for a movie like this...  It's like talking about the obviousness of an animal.  "Sorry, your cat was too obvious.  Obvious cats are just so crass."  What is that even supposed to mean?

Let's pretend with script-writing:

Is the babadook real?  Yes.  So then this is a supernatural movie?  No.  Wait... but you just said the babadook was real.  It is.  So then how is this NOT a supernatural movie?  Because there's nothing supernatural about it.  The babadook is real, and her depression is real.  In fact, they're the same thing.  Yeah... but what you mean is the babadook is a metaphor for the depression?  That depends on how you're using the word 'metaphor.'  If you're using it to mean that this is a movie about a monster that doesn't exist, that is separate from the depression but can be read metaphorically, then no- because the monster does exist, every day, in the real world we are living in right now.  But that's impossible!  I don't understand, waaaaaaaah.... I'm gonna go complain on imdb. :(

The Babadook requires the audience to be capable of parsing a reality that is NOT fantasy (i.e. realism), but that includes magical elements.  The babadook is no less real than the dog, or Mrs. Roach, but don't make the mistake of thinking that means this movie is supernatural.

I won't stop screaming until I know if it's real or not!!!!!!!!!!!

Part II: You are not your depression

Or, sometimes kids ARE terrible and that doesn't make you a bad mom...

The other glorious thing about The Babadook is how it treats the complex relationship between a parent and child.  There are so many, many movies that tell an overly simplified version of this struggle: usually where the child is sweet and only occasionally annoying, and the mom Just Goes Crazy because that's Just What Moms Do.  Because Mothering Is Hard.  I cannot even begin to express how stupid, lazy, and harmful this is to women coping with motherhood, mustless PPD.  

So many reviews on the internet harp on about how annoying the kid in this movie is.  Every time I see one, I turn into Grumpycat and go "GOOD. :(" because the kid not being a darling angel is important to understanding the cycle this movie is all about.  Sometimes kids aren't good and sometimes mom's aren't good.  The events in The Babadook are grueling, both for the mother and child.  They are both dealing with immensely heavy emotional shit, and it makes them drive each other crazy.  The mother makes the kid crazy, and the kid makes the mom crazy, until everything is just covered over in the darkness of the babadook, and they are actually trying to murder each other. 

This level of emotional complexity is not only refreshing, but makes the terror of The Babadook so much more severe.  It would be easier to dismiss a movie that worked in broad strokes.  It would be easy to say: well, that woman is deeply disturbed; I'm not deeply disturbed; therefore I'm safe from being this woman and this movie couldn't possibly happen to me.  Instead, The Babadook shows just how feasible it is to slide down that slope of grief, sleep-deprivation, and bitterness into becoming a monster yourself.  The Babadook does not turn away from the horribleness of PPD.  It doesn't give the easy out of the babadook just being a fantastical, fictional bogeyman that lives in a movie, tormenting the innocent (GHOSTS ARE REAL).  Rather, it shows how the babadook can be an all-too-real darkness festering on the inside of lonely, desperate parents.  

And yet!  The babadook is separate from the mother, Amelia.  If this were a movie that flopped over onto the GHOSTS ARE NOT REAL horn, it would quickly fall into the pathetically sexist trap of "Well, she's just a crazy, bad mother."  Think Carrie or Mommy Dearest.  Considering the monumental amount of pressure and guilt moms labor under in our society, this trap is particularly insidious.  The last thing moms need is another story telling us that when we are at our worst: weak, damaged, and struggling, that it just means we are bad.  Because if we were 'good moms' we wouldn't be having these problems, and we especially would never, ever, EVER take any of it out on our darling angel children.  Oh, you did take it out on your kids that one time?  Well, guess they're gonna need therapy later and you are a BAD MOM.  And that narrative just feeds the evil cycle of depression, further isolating hurting women and hurting families.

By making the babadook a thing that is separate from the mother's identity, it (strangely) gives a positive, hopeful, and empowering view on mental illness.  You Are Not Your Depression, The Babadook says.  Even better, it says: You Can Fight It and Be Happy Someday.  

Now, you're probably going to have to keep your babadook locked away and feed it worms for the rest of your life because you 'can't get rid of the babadook', but you know what?  That's pretty okay.

But don't get uppity and think The Babadook condones abuse.  If it's clear about one thing: it is how horrible all this is.  But it doesn't leave it there, down at the bottom of that pit.  It concludes with a message far stronger and more powerful: 

You Can Beat The Babadook.


Oh, and aside from all this lengthy rambling: The Babadook is FUCKING TERRIFYING.  So go watch it already...

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