Monday, January 12, 2015

The Babadook and the Basement

I am trying really hard to finish stuff lately. Someone once asked FilmCritHULK on Twitter whether they should make one good short film or three bad ones and HULK said three bad ones because the one “good” one isn’t going to be good anyway. My problem usually is that I post things too soon—and that when I do edit, it never feels substantial. I’m not deleting whole paragraphs or restructuring entire posts. But hey, at least I’m finishing them! I’d like to find balance between giving myself permission to write badly and trying to write the best stuff I can.

Here is a post about The Babadook that I originally posted to Tumblr on December 31st, 2014 (my 24th birthday!).

Let The Babadook stand as a perfect example of how, when I write about movies, I almost always end up enjoying them more. I didn’t like this one all that much while I was watching it, but I did appreciate how well the monster worked as a metaphor—and when I started writing about that metaphor (in my journal, longhand, as a warmup before working on something else), I began to understand it better, and my appreciation not only for it but for the film as a whole increased.

Seven years ago, Amelia’s husband Robbie died in a car crash driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth to their son. (The film opens with a nightmarish flashback to this death, establishing its importance.) Now that son, Samuel, is in first grade he won’t stop talking about—and obsessively planning to kill—a monster called the Babadook. When a popup book about this very Babadook appears on his bookshelf, however, and Amelia reads it aloud to him, the monster makes itself known to her as well, demanding that she let it in. Amelia does so, quite literally: in a POV shot from the Babadook’s perspective, it swoops down into her open, screaming mouth.

The Babadook is a metaphor for the aftereffects of Robbie’s death. Trauma and grief is what truly stalks this family, threatening not only their sanity but their very lives. Kent makes this clear in several ways—in one scene, for example, the Babadook appears to Amelia in the guise of her dead husband. But the most interesting tool Kent uses to explore the Babadook-as-metaphor is a physical space: the basement of Amelia’s home, where she keeps her husband’s things and which represents the deepest, darkest part of her mind, the part that has not come to terms with his death. Several crucial scenes are set there, beginning with:

Scene 1: The Magic Show. This scene takes place before the Babadook manifests itself to Amelia, showing us what her and Samuel’s respective relationships to Robbie are like. Samuel interacts with the space in several different ways. He happily practices magic tricks in it, with a row of stuffed animals and a framed photo of his father for an audience, but earlier in the film he’s also shown building weapons and traps for the Babadook down there (a rope tied across the stairs to trip it; a miniature crossbow that shoots darts). Samuel is both trying to connect with the father he never knew—by performing for his photograph and playing with his things—and preparing to do battle with the effects of that same father’s death. Either way, the room is open to him; he moves freely in and out of it after stealing the key from his mother.

Amelia, for her part, keeps the room locked because she can’t bear to descend into the part of her mind it represents: the part that hasn’t fully processed her husband’s death. She may well not have gone down there once in the past seven years. As if afraid of what memories Samuel might awaken down there, she chastises him for making a mess when she finds him practicing magic tricks down there—then clutches the photo of her husband to her chest moments later, overjoyed at the reminder of a time when she was happy. Good and bad, Amelia has locked her memories of her husband in this basement of her mind—and it is from this basement that the Babadook is born…

Scene 2: The Fight. …and in this basement that she will do battle with it.

Once Amelia lets the Babadook in, the popup book’s grim prophecies begin to come true. First Amelia snaps the neck of their little white dog; then she goes after Samuel. Using the traps originally set for the Babadook, he knocks her unconscious, then ties her up on the floor. When Amelia wakes up, she breaks free from the ropes and begins to strangle her son—only to then break free from the Babadook, and start to finally fight it. Earlier in the film, Amelia invited the Babadook—the darkest dark of her—in, inhabiting it as fully as it inhabited her. Now she expels that darkness, vomiting Mister Babadook up as treacly black liquid. Amelia and Samuel make their way upstairs to her bedroom, where one final showdown awaits them. “You are nothing!” Amelia screams, defying the monster for once and for all. In a POV shot from the Babadook’s perspective, we see it flee from the room and scuttle downstairs to the basement from whence it came.

Scene 3: The Bowl. How was Jennifer Kent going to end her movie? Using the greatest monster movie of all time as my reference, I figured she had one of two options. Amelia could either kick the alien out of the airlock, or the alien could rip Amelia’s head off, sit down at the controls, and start speaking in her voice—as it did to Ripley in an alternate ending that I learned about from the DVD extras of Alien. In other words, absolute victory or absolute defeat. Kent, though, deftly avoids this binary in favor of a smarter, more complex, and ultimately more hopeful ending.

In a sunny final scene, we see just how much has changed since the Babadook was banished to the basement. In the popup book, he warned that “The more you deny, the stronger I get”; by the end of the film, Amelia and Samuel are no longer in denial about their husband and father’s death. They’re celebrating Samuel’s birthday on the actual day, for one thing. Both also talk openly about why they haven’t done so for the past seven years. Earlier in the film, when Samuel announces to a stranger in the supermarket that his father died driving his mother to the hospital to give birth to him, Amelia silences him him, angry and humiliated. In this last scene, though, when he tells the same story to two social workers, Amelia not only corroborates it but rewards him for telling it by comparing him to his father: “They both speak their mind.” Samuel’s frankness is an asset, not a flaw—and proof that he’s come to terms with his past.

And so has his mother. An unusual shot that begins underground and travels up through the dirt to Amelia, kneeling in the sunlit garden, represents her trajectory from darkness to light. The end result of that journey? She’s digging for worms to feed the Babadook, which has taken up permanent residence in the basement. How is he? Samuel asks. “Quiet today,” Amelia replies, acknowledging the fluctuating nature of her and her son’s mental states. On other days, perhaps, Mister Babadook will be louder, and there’s no magic trick that can disappear him completely, but there is another magic trick of sorts they can perform—a quotidian one, maybe, but no less miraculous for that. Robbie’s death will always be a fact of Amelia and Samuel’s life, and not one that can be kicked out of the airlock—but one that they can accept. And now that they’ve done that, never will it terrorize them again. 

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