So much of The Babadook is so good, it almost doesn’t matter the film’s third act is a series of little disasters. Director (and writer) Kent does such an exquisite job with the film until then, she can basically coast to the end credits. The Babadook is a spectacularly made film; Kent’s direction, Simon Njoo’s editing, Radek Ladczuk’s photography, Jed Kurzel’s music, and Alex Holmes’s production design are all phenomenal. Most of the leads Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman’s performances are great. For most of the film, Kent finds a perfect balance between being creepy and defining that creepiness. In the end, the creepiness is symbolic, which is it’s own problem, somewhat separate from the other third act issues. Except intricately tied to them because Kent’s finish for the film means there’s only so much she can do in the third act. Given the wobbly ending, it’s even more impressive how much of Babadook is good. Kent really does delay having to give into the finale building until the last possible moment.
Davis and Wiseman are almost always onscreen. Davis is a single mom, Wiseman is her somewhat strange six year-old (he’s about to turn seven, cue plot point); his father (Davis’s husband, Benjamin Winspear in flashbacks) died driving Davis to the hospital to give birth. She’s haunted by it. Wiseman’s haunted by it. It’s all very heavy. And kind of shocking it wasn’t a problem for Davis until Wiseman’s seventh birthday. She really delayed her breakdown.
The inciting action for the film is Davis reading Wiseman a story about The Babadook from a mysterious pop-up book Wiseman finds on the shelf. It’s a majorly disturbing book, even for a regular child and Wiseman’s extra sensitive. As the film starts, pre-Babadook read, Davis (and Wiseman) haven’t been getting good sleep. He’s scared of monsters and makes sure Davis knows it. Wiseman’s even building monster-fighting weapons; Rube Goldberg style. They’re important for the plot–and the character development (the friction between Wiseman and Davis). It’s a great detail. Babadook is full of great details. Kent’s writing of the first seventy minutes (the film runs just around ninety total) is fabulous.
For most of the film–even when it’s not–the film’s from Davis’s perspective. She’s trying to deal with the social awkwardness of Wiseman (he’s obsessed with monsters, which is kind of underdeveloped as it turns out; monsters under the bed or in the closets, monsters). Once they read the story, his awkwardness and behaviors escalate. He gets kicked out of school, he gets into it with his cousin and loses his aunt as a babysitter (the relationship between Davis and sister Hayley McElhinney is strangely more for comedic stress relief than character development). So by the second half of The Babadook, it’s just Davis and Wiseman alone together in their scary house where scary things are starting to happen.
Of course, there’s also the chronic lack of sleep thing, which is also an underdeveloped part of the ground situation. Kent avoids excessive exposition… but she also excessively avoids exposition. That approach lets her get symbolic with things, sure, but it leaves the film without much else, at least symbolically.
One of the most nightmarishly successful things Kent does in the film comes in that problematic third act, as Davis starts to entirely breakdown, becoming verbally abusive towards Wiseman (and threatening physical abuse, though only the audience knows its because she’s read more of the Babadook book). Most of the action takes place over one night. Kent doesn’t track time, instead following Davis’s extremely sleep deprived perception of the night. Kent keeps the same style devices the film’s had until this point, making The Babadook all of a sudden feel like this endless, horrible, threatening night. It’s fantastic filmmaking.
It just doesn’t add up narratively.
The acting is good. It’s all on Davis and Wiseman. She’s fantastic until the denouement; it’s not Davis’s fault. Kent just doesn’t figure out a way to bring the character back from the brink. From over the brink. Davis is fine in those scenes. Effective. She’s just no longer building this complex character, she’s doing muted pantomime. Even when the film’s outlandish, it’s never outlandish. Kent keeps it in check.
Wiseman goes from having incredibly loud, with concerning behaviors (again, one of Babadook’s stumbling blocks is how he and Davis never had to serious address them before the film’s present action) to being quietly terrified. It’s a strange character shift, like he forgets how to express himself. Some of it is a plot point–sedatives–but some of the shift is just so Davis’s own concerning behaviors can take centerstage.
The film’s a technical marvel. Kent, editor Njoo, and cinematographer Ladczuk do true wonders with the digital video. They make Babadook expressionistic while never breaking with the reality constraints of the setting. Sometimes it’s how the scene’s lighted, sometimes it’s how it’s cut. Kent directs the hell out of this picture. The script has nowhere near as much ambition, which doesn’t matter for most of the film. Between the acting and the filmmaking, the script not having the same intensity or energy doesn’t hamper The Babadook. The rest makes up for it.
Until the finale. And then there’s only so much the acting can do before the script trips it up. And then the script takes down the filmmaking too. Not entirely, of course, but sadly, just enough.
Written and directed by Jennifer Kent; director of photography, Radek Ladczuk; edited by Simon Njoo; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Alex Holmes; produced by Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere; released by Umbrella Entertainment.
Starring Essie Davis (Amelia), Noah Wiseman (Samuel), Barbara West (Mrs. Roach), Hayley McElhinney (Claire), Daniel Henshall (Robbie), Chloe Hurn (Ruby), and Benjamin Winspear (Oskar).