Movie Reviews - 2014 postsSunday January 18, 2015
Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)
Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” doesn’t believe in gray areas. It’s about God, country and family. It’s about protecting your own, and the greatest country on earth, and taking down the bad guys. Maybe even a record number of them.
At one point, on the second tour of Iraq for Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, Kyle greets his younger brother, Jeff (Kier O’Donnell), a skinny dude who is about to be shipped back home. But something’s off. Jeff has a thousand-yard stare, and eventually he tells his bigger, beefier brother, “Fuck this place.” Soon after, Chris is talking to another soldier, who tells him, “I just don’t believe in what we’re doing here.” Chris is stunned. “You want these fuckers to come to San Diego or New York?” he asks. “We’re more than just protecting dirt.” So off they go. To kill more savages.
Now, you could bring up the fact that these fuckers in Iraq weren’t going anywhere until we arrived and toppled Saddam, and allowed anarchy to break loose, and al Qaeda to move in, and ... Sorry. Gray area. The movie isn’t any more complicated than that.
For whom was the war more complicated? Pat Tillman, for one. An NFL football player with a lantern jaw, he joined the U.S. Army after the attacks of 9/11 with the hope of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Instead, he wound up fighting an insurgency we created in Iraq—a war which Tillman regarded as illegal. That’s not a thought that enters the mind of Chris Kyle, not to mention Eastwood. In “American Sniper” we have to be in Iraq because that’s where evil men—“savages” in the language of the SEALs—do evil deeds. That’s why we’re going door-to-door in bombed-out cities. And that’s why Chris is on a rooftop with gun trained: to protect his fellow soldiers. He has milliseconds to decide whether or not to kill not only bad men but women and children.
Psst: He’s never wrong.
It’s a helluva thing killing a man
What an interesting career Clint Eastwood has had. Forty years ago, he was a darling of conservatives everywhere, and a fascist in the eyes of movie critics like Pauline Kael, for his portrayal of trigger-happy and Miranda-rights-dismissing lawman Dirty Harry Callahan. Twenty years ago, he became a celebrated Oscar-winning director for his somber, violence-begets-violence western “Unforgiven.” Ten years ago, he actually became an enemy to the pro-life right for the sad, euthanasia-ish ending of “Million Dollar Baby.” More recently, he starred in and narrated a Chrysler commercial trumpeting the return of Detroit, orchestrated by Pres. Obama, then showed up at the 2012 Republican convention to dismiss Obama as an empty chair.
Now he’s a hero of the right again. He’s recreated the Iraq War in the Hollywood mould, which is, one imagines, how Pres. Bush, and many pro-war conservatives, imagined it in the first place. Eastwood even manages to put a positive spin on the phrase “Mission accomplished.” No small feat.
The great lesson for Chris begins early, when his father, Wayne (Ben Reed), takes him hunting. His father is stern (never leave your gun in the ground), but complimentary (you’ll make a good hunter some day), and then at the dinner table, when younger brother Jeff shows up with a black eye, he lays it all out for the boys.
There are three types of people in the world, he says, and lists them:
- Sheep (victims, essentially)
- Wolves (bullies, essentially)
- Sheep dogs (those who protect the victims from the bullies)
I don’t raise sheep, he says.
You begin to raise a finger, a counterpoint, that none of us are any one thing, and that sheep dogs, for example, have a troubling tendency to spill over into wolves territory. But then you realize: Eastwood. “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Screw your gray area, Brainiac.
In 1998, after the al-Qaeda-orchestrated U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, Kyle joins the SEALS, and we get some brutal training footage, as well as a not-bad meeting and romance with his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, going brunette). Then 9/11. As the SEALs say, “It’s ON!”
Kyle quickly gets a rep as a sharp-shooter. Eventually he’s known simply as “The Legend.” He kills a young boy, about to throw a rocket-propelled grenade at Kyle’s fellow soldiers, then takes down the woman (the boy’s mother?), who was definitely trying to blow up the men. He keeps killing bad men with big guns, then grows weary of rooftop patrol and goes door-to-door with other SEALs and Marines.
When he gets home, he can’t adjust. It’s like the supermarket scene in “The Hurt Locker” but more protracted, and with more complaints from the Mrs. Then he returns to Iraq. Did he re-up? Was it stop-loss? Who knows? There’s an expert sniper on the Iraq side, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who pins down Kyle, kills this and that guy, and becomes the bête noir: Kill this guy, it’s implied, and the war will go right.
At home after the third tour, Taya tells him, “I need you to be human again.” (But we don’t, since the inhuman hero is an action-movie staple.) She tells him, “I need you to be here.” (But we want him to be there, since that’s where the story is.)
It’s on his fourth and final tour that Kyle kills Mustafa—with an impossible, slow-mo shot from a mile away. “Mission accomplished,” a fellow soldier says with a grin and no trace of irony. Then Kyle returns home, has trouble, adjusts, becomes a good husband and father again, and ... tragedy off-screen.
We all got it coming, kid
Apparently the real Chris Kyle wasn’t as conflicted as Bradley Cooper’s cinematic version. He might not have been as humble, either. In the movie he’s the perfect man for imperfect times: tough but polite, witty with women, gentle but firm with kids, conflicted about killing, but in the end mostly interested in protecting the greatest country on earth. He carries the Bible and believes in God and Jesus Christ.
The script by Jason Hall (“Spread,” “Paranoia”), and based upon Chris Kyle’s book of the same name, is often witty. Early, Jeff and Chris witness Chris’ girl cheating on him, and after Chris beats up the dude, and quietly but firmly kicks out the histrionic girl, Jeff asks, “So when’s the wedding?” During SEALs training, the men are lambasted as “Cheetos-eating and Dr. Pepper-drinking motherfuckers,” which drew an appreciative laugh from the popcorn-munching and Coke-drinking folks at Pacific Place. After one tour, Kyle comes home and wonders where the war is. “It’s not even on the news,” he says. After another, he stares into the blank TV set while the noises of the war resound in his head.
“American Sniper” is an unapologetic portrait of an unapologetic man, and in that regard it’s kind of fascinating. Even so, I was often bored. Nothing is questioned (most particularly: why Iraq?) because answers are assumed (sheep/wolves/sheepdog). The world is actually more complicated than that, and to assume otherwise can be dangerous. Pres. Bush didn’t believe in gray areas, either.
Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)
The only Thomas Pynchon I’ve read—and that was 30 years ago—was “The Crying of Lot 49,” which I found bizarre, beautifully written, very L.A., and almost completely incomprehensible.
The movie “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and based upon Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, shares with “Lot 49” everything from outsized names (Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax) to the pungency of L.A. at the end of the 1960s (drugs and hippies, Orange County Republicans and real estate, skateboarders and bikers) to incomprehensibility. Halfway through, I thought, “It’s like ‘Chinatown,’ but with the Dude rather than Jake Gittes as the P.I., and steeped in the spacey nihilism of the 1970s rather than the grittiness of the 1930s.” Then I thought, “Actually, it’s just a lot like ‘The Big Lebowski.’ The stoner take on noir. The detective work that goes nowhere. Except ...”
Except, I thought, it’s not as good. The tone is off. It’s smart, well-acted, but ...
And then it hits you: Is the problem the director?
I say all of this with trepidation. In 2007, after seeing Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” at the Guild 45th, I dismissed it. I thought it wasn’t quite there. Then a few years ago my friend Vinny forced me to rewatch it. And I was blown away.
So maybe I’m missing something here, too. Maybe I need to see it again. That, at least, is an option with Anderson. Even when his movies don’t quite connect, you still want to see them again.
“Inherent Vice” opens the way all noir detective movies open: a girl enters the office of the detective with a case. Except here, the office is a run-down near-breachfront apartment, the P.I. is a pot-smoking slacker, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), less hippy than fallen hipster, while the girl, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), is Doc’s former girlfriend, and now paramour of real estate mogul Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She talks vaguely, and circularly, of a plot to kidnap him and put him in a mental institution. She’s worried for him. Doc is worried for her. He still loves her, you can tell. Soon, she goes missing.
Other cases, connected to this one, keep turning up at Doc’s doorstep. Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth “Omar” Williams), fresh out of prison, wants Doc to find his former cellmate, Glen Charlock, a member of the Aryan brother and current Wolfmann bodyguard. He also wants him to find his old neighborhood, which has been razed for one of Wolfmann’s new developments: Channel View Estates. Blacks being booted for the whites. In the development, at the end of a cul-de-sac, Doc finds a brothel, gets hit on the head, and wakes up next to a very dead Charlock while dozens of members of the LAPD train guns on him. They’re led by Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, in a standout peformance), a crew-cutted chest-thumper, who earned his nickname by beating up suspects, and who has a comic oral fixation with black phallic symbols—mostly chocolate-covered bananas. In turns, we find out he’s 1) smarter than we thought, 2) henpecked at home, 3) disrespected or at least disconnected at work. He has issues. And he’s the closest thing Doc will have to a partner in the movie.
He’s also the subject of one of the film’s more meaningful lines. The last time we see him, he literally breaks down the door to Doc’s beachhouse, glowers down at a stoned Doc, takes a puff of his joint, then eats the rest of it. It’s almost an “I-drink-your-MILKSHAKE!” moment, isn’t it? Stunned through his haze, Doc says something like, “Take it easy, brother,” and we get this exchange:
Bigfoot: I ain’t your brother.
Doc: No, but you need a keeper.
Nice. And both in the simian and Biblical sense. Maybe we all do.
Another case that winds up on Doc’s doorstep? Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) wants him to find her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson). If almost everyone in the movie has a habit of going missing, Coy keeps turning up in Doc’s path and on Doc’s TV. There he is disrupting a speech by Pres. Nixon before a right-wing “Vigilant California” rally. So is he a left-wing agitator? Not really. He’s an informer now for the feds, and the disruption is supposed to give him street cred. But he wants out. Except there is no out. That’s why he’s missing. He’s staying away from his wife and child to protect them.
All of these various mysteries soon revolve around an organization called the Golden Fang, which is either an Indochinese drug-smuggling cartel or an association of Orange County dentists. Or both. The latter is led by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a coke-snorting, secretary-schtupping mess, who dies in a trampoline accident off-screen. But it’s not an accident.
Paying the rent
“Inherent Vice” has all the trappings of a noir detective story but not much is solved. We want right angles and get curves, endings and get fizzle. There’s a paranoid sense of a menace, a monstrosity shifting the world beneath our feet, but it’s not just paranoia. It’s Gov. Reagan releasing mental patients, and in effect privatizing mental health care (as he would do nationally as president), and it’s in one of these institutions where Doc finally finds Michael Wolfmann, who made the mistake of thinking he could give away his real estate holdings. It’s the collusion of money and politics, which is backed by shocktroops both public (LAPD) and private (the Aryan Brotherhood). It’s the return of Shasta, who was never kidnapped or killed, as Doc feared; she just went away for a while. But she returns damaged goods. Wolfmann abused her sexually, and she liked it, thrived on it, and still wants it. And Doc gives it to her. That scene—love turning to sadomasochism—is a death-of-the-sixties moment. It’s Woodstock becoming Altamont, the hope of RFK becoming the reality of Nixon.
Which is why, I assume, Doc engineers the ending he does. Sitting on a stash of Golden Fang heroin, he brokers a deal with Vigilant California bigwig Crocker Fenway (‘90s indie favorite Martin Donovan, in a pitch-perfect cameo): the return of the heroin for the release of Coy Harlingen from his informant obligations; so he can return to his wife and child; so Doc can have ahappy ending, even if it’s not his.
Their dealmaking conversation is instructive:
Doc: How much money would I have to take from you so I don’t lose your respect?
Crocker (smiles): A bit late for that. People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent.
The look Doc gives him on that one. Rent as a sucker’s game. You and me playing by the rules even though the game is fixed. There’s a sense here, and throughout the movie, that this is where we went wrong. During this pivotal moment, the left got stoned while the right got busy. It shifted the ground. It rigged the game even more.
I don’t know. Maybe I’ve written myself into liking the film more than I did while watching it. In the theater, I kept thinking Anderson was screwing up. Despite everything happening on screen, it all felt flat, extended, poorly edited.
But I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. There’s something there. If we could just figure out what it is.
Movie Review: Force Majeure (2014)
I was surprised that the avalanche occurs 12 minutes in. Then there’s the silent accusations that become vocal during a squirmingly awful dinner with another couple. That takes us 30 minutes in. The movie, I knew, verged on two hours. I looked over at Patricia, stricken, hand on my chest, and said, “I can’t believe this goes on for 90 more minutes.”
But it does. “Force Majeure” may be the most uncomfortable comedy I’ve seen.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), is the young, handsome patriarch of a photogenic Swedish family on a ski vacation in France. But he recalls Richard Nixon in this way: It’s less his crime than his cover-up.
After skiing one morning, the family is having lunch on a picturesque veranda when they hear the muffled explosion of a controlled avalanche. Then they see the snow coming toward them. Everyone stands, oos and ahs, and takes pictures and videos. Tomas does this, too, even as his youngest, Harry (Vincent Wettergren), struggles to get away. But the father assures him it’s alright. Until, that is, this monster of white all but envelops them, and Tomas flees. That’s his crime. He leaves his wife and children behind on the veranda.
In that split-second, their lives are irrevocably changed.
The avalanche turns out to be a ghost avalanche, a snow cloud, and as it dissipates the sky turns blue again. But the skies aren’t really blue again.
It’s the kids who silently accuse Tomas first. Nothing is said, but they act bratty with both parents and kick them out of their hotel room.
Then it’s Tomas’ wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They’re having dinner with Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg), a Swedish free spirit, and her ski-lodge pickup, a wide-eyed American (Brady Corbet). Tomas acts the patriarch: he noses the wine, nods approval to the unseen waiter, they talk about their day. It’s all rather dull business until Ebba mentions the avalanche, and Tomas running away from the avalanche. Tomas denies it. Except it’s a weak denial. It’s not angry—as it should be, since he’s being accused of cowardice—it just hangs there awkwardly.
The poet John Berryman once said that the problem with modern society is that a man can live his entire life without knowing whether or not he was a coward. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s certainly no longer true for Tomas. He knows. So why doesn’t he admit it? Because it’s about the worst thing you can admit. So he acts like Nixon; he covers up. It’s his second cowardly act, and, in a way, the more unforgivable one.
Ebba, like a one-woman Woodward and Bernstein, tries to break through, but she only works up the courage when they’ve been drinking with other couples. First there was Charlotte; the next night it’s Tomas’ heavily bearded friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju of “Game of Thrones” and “Kraftidioten”), dallying at the resort with his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Initially I thought Mats would represent the strong, “natural” man to Tomas’ cowardly, “civilized” man, but thank God no. Instead, Mats plays the awkward diplomat:
I believe that the ‘enemy’ is the image we have of heroes. All those stories about heroes. And the pressure to be a hero and do heroic acts in terrible situations. ... Very few of us are heroic.
Ebba listens, then plays the trump card—the video Tomas was taking as he ran away. It’s played; and Tomas is revealed to himself and to the world.
A shell of a man
That’s the uncomfortable. Where’s the comedy?
Here, for example. On the way back to their room, Mats and Fanni have the following conversation:
Fanni: I wonder how I would react if you had done that to me.
Fanni: You might have run, too, and left your kids behind.
Mats: You might also have run.
Fanni: We’re talking about you and Tomas.
Mats: [Odd noise]
Fanni: Because I think I would react like Ebba: I wouldn’t be able to run.
Is Fanni overidentifying? Does she not know what she’s accusing him of? Is she just young? She gets hers, though. Mats keeps her up for hours trying to prove the negative she dumped into his lap.
If Fanni regrets her bizarre accusation, Ebba comes to regret her sleuthing. Tomas was a shell of a man, and she broke through that shell, but it turns out it was the only thing holding him up. The next day, he all but melts into a puddle. He cries with Mats, locks himself out of his room, wanders around the hotel. At the ski “bar,” a girl tells him that her friend thinks he’s the best-looking guy in the place, and he has seconds to bask in this thought before she returns to tell him, in essence, “Whoops, she meant another guy.” When he finally gets into the room again, with his wife and kids around, he goes into another crying jag, and all gather around to comfort him.
The next day, their last day at the lodge, visibility is slight but the family goes skiing anyway. You’re thinking, “Disaster.” You’re right. Ebba gets left behind, and Tomas trudges after her, calling her name. The camera stays with the kids. Time passes. They plop to the ground. They call out for mother and father. We see their point of view. It’s all white.
For a second, I thought the movie would end there. It wouldn’t have been a bad end, to be honest.
Instead, triumphantly, through the white, we see Tomas carrying Ebba. He smiles, exhales; she walks away. Why was he carrying her if she could walk? Because the whole thing was staged by Ebba? Either to test Tomas (would he try to rescue her now?) or to prop him back up? I assume so. And I assume the latter reason. She broke through his façade to this quivering jelly of a man, and he was so unpalatable, and so much work, that she created a situation where he could be whole again. And they could be a family again.
The image of heroes
The atmosphere of “Force Majeure,” written and directed by Ruben Östlund, is distant, cold, spooky. It’s the modern, mechanized society Berryman alludes to. All of their needs are met but no one is really present. We only see two employees and both are silent and incompetent. Otherwise, everything is just there and vaguely menacing: the booms of the controlled avalanches; the creaking of the ski lifts. And it’s not just the ski resort. One of my favorite shots, which Östlund keeps returning to, is the family waiting through their electric toothbrush routine. No brushing is actually involved. They’re all just waiting for the mechanism to finish its task. Its task is us.
What do you make of the end? The family, vaguely whole again, is taking the resort bus down the winding narrow mountain roads; but the busdriver is an incompetent who can’t handle the sharp turns. He freaks out Ebba, who demands an exit, and everyone gets out except for Charlotte, the self-satisfied free spirit, and the bus continues on its way. The crowd looks around, wondering what to do. I suppose you could say they’ve left the mechanism and they’re not sure what to do. Then they do. They walk down the mountain.
Are they free now? Hardly. Tomas first rejects, then accepts, a cigarette from a fellow walker. He leads the way—with his heavy boots, aviator shades, and cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s the image we have of heroes.
Movie Review: Wild (2014)
How do you make a movie about a woman hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself? There’s only one person on stage. Where’s the drama?
The drama is in 1) who she meets, and 2) what she carries. And with the latter, I’m not talking tents and food and water; I’m talking memories. I’m talking about why Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is hiking the PCT in the first place.
“Wild,” based upon the 2012 memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” is a much better movie than I thought it would be. It’s a wholly American movie. It encompasses the width of our land, from Arizona to Washington state, and the breadth of our land in the music we hear. We start out with shivers of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa,” and end it with “Homeward Bound,” and in between we get touches of spooky Elvis (“Don’t Be Cruel”) and Lucinda Williams, and it’s all crowned by an odd, small boy in a rainy Oregon forest singing the All-American song of love and loss, “Red River Valley”:
From this valley they say you are going
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while
And who’s responsible for this All-American movie? Well, the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”), a Brit, and it was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), a French Canadian.
Of course. Bien sur.
Above your nerve
When Laura Dern first showed up in a flashback as Bobbi, the mother of Cheryl, I whispered to Patricia, “No wonder’s Cheryl’s so screwed up.” But it’s the opposite. This is a new kind of role for Dern. Bobbi is the spiritual center of the movie. She’s what Cheryl hopes to return to.
Why is Cheryl so screwed up? We get flashbacks of the life she’s running from: sex, drugs and a little rock ‘n’ roll—the All-American dream and the All-American mess. She’s a Minnesota girl who became a Portland heroin junkie. But how did that happen? And how did she climb out of it?
Early on, we get a sense that it’s not contemporary. In the flashbacks, Cheryl talks with her mom about Erica Jong and zipless fucks, and why James Michener isn’t a great writer, and those are ’70s or ’80s conversations. Later, we figure out she’s on the trail in the early to mid-’90s. When she hears Jerry Garcia dies.
In my own experience, and that’s just day hiking, the first steps of the hike are often the hardest, and so it seems here. Cheryl so overpacked she can barely stand up. I assumed she would begin to discard things, like Katz in Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” but she forces herself upright, and out the door, and ponders the hitchhike options. Then it’s to the trailhead and its logbook, where for the first time she writes down an inspirational literary quote and cheekily adds herself to the attribution: “‘If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.’ —Emily Dickinson (and Cheryl Strayed).” She keeps doing this with other authors throughout the PCT. It’s a bit precious but kinda fun, too. It's also how she gets known to the other hikers. That, and being a woman hiking alone. Which leads to its own problems.
For all the overpacking, she neglected the proper stove fuel, so she eats her mush cold. By Day 8 she’s starving and veers off the trail and finds a nighttime farmer. Much of the drama (per 1, above) is drama typical to meeting strangers: Can I trust this person? It’s exacerbated, certainly, by Cheryl being a woman alone, but man or woman it’s the reason most of us don’t do what she’s doing. It’s less the rattlesnakes crawling on the ground than the rattlesnakes walking on two legs. She’ll meet a few of those. One in particular.
Frank, the nighttime farmer, is big and blunt (“What kind of woman are you?” he asks), and he takes a nip of liquor, but we don’t really fear him, do we? Partly because he’s played by W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood”), but more because he finishes his nighttime plowing before attending to her needs. He’s the first of her stranger-philosophers, and maybe the best. She regrets decisions she’s made, he talks about his own, she asks if he would change them if he could. But to him, he didn’t have a choice. “Never been a time in my life when there’s been a fork in my road,” he says. In a sense, his lack of choice frees him from the regrets of the past.
Compare this with Cheryl's line about her mother's philosophy:
There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.
Is it better to have a choice or no choice? Both are freeing in their own way. In the end, in an Oregon rainforest, Cheryl splits the difference between the two:
What if I could forgive myself? What if I was sorry? But if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if all those things I did are the things that got me here?
Choice is maintained, regret nullified. I had similar thoughts when I was 27. And I wasn't in an Oregon rainforest at the time.
As Cheryl hikes the trail, meets the people she meets, and overcomes what she has to overcome, she goes deeper into her backstory, which is mostly the story of her mother. Bobbi got fucked over by life and responded with a positive attitude. Then life rewarded her with terminal cancer. That was the event that sent Cheryl spiraling down.
“Wild” isnt' exactly deep but it's never uninteresting. Admittedly, this is the kind of story that’s easier to do in a book, which is a more thoughtful medium, but Hornby and Vallée manage it. The story just flows. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded less happening. I wouldn’t have minded more alone time with Cheryl—that dizzying, buzzing sense of solitude in the wilderness.
Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)
I understand why this movie, despite being in the maligned horror genre, wound up on so many critics’ “best of ...” lists this year: It’s steeped in ambiguity. Even at the end, we don’t know if mother and son are truly haunted (by a ghost-demon), or metaphorically haunted (by the past). It’s almost like “Birdman” in this regard: Is this person crazy or is a little crazy happening in the world?
Extra credit: Does such ambiguity play well with traditional horror fans?
Full disclosure: I’m not a traditional horror fan.
Who’s the monster?
“Babadook” is a low-budget Aussie affair with exceptional acting from its two leads, and exceptional directing from its first-time director Jennifer Kent.
Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, working at a nursing home, and raising her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). He’s a cute boy who sees monsters at night, but he’s odd and she’s harried. Sleep is interrupted. He’s bringing weapons to school, hurting other kids. Eventually the monster has a name, the Babadook, and one night, at Sam’s request, Amelia reads to him from a book she’s never seen: “The Babadook.” It’s a frightening children’s book with menacing pop-up figures and rhymes:
If it’s in a word
Or in a look
You can’t get rid
Of the Babadook
The last half of the book is nothing but blank pages. When she sees the effect the book has on Samuel she puts it away. But we know it will return. Those blank pages have to be filled.
A lot of the movie fits within such traditional horror tropes, but they’re subtler; both more grounded and more ambiguous.
To be honest, I kind of figured it out fairly early. Samuel lost his father the day he was born—car accident on the way to the hospital—and one day, at her birthday party, his cousin teases him. She say he doesn’t even have a father. He insists he does. Insists.
That’s when I knew: Baba-dook. Father.
Samuel gets worse: angry, irrational, out of control. In a sense, he becomes a little monster—a more outré version of the way kids are often little monsters—and he and Amelia become more and more isolated. He’s suspended from school, she’s given time off from work, she becomes estranged from her sister. The “Babadook” book somehow winds up back in Samuel’s room, so Amelia rips it up and throws it in the garbage outside; but then it reappears on her doorstep, taped together, and those blank pages are now filled. Is that her in the book? Is she strangling their dog? Is she stabbing her son?
I’ll wager with you
I’ll make you a bet
The more you deny
The stronger I get
(Cf. Amelia’s line about her husband: “I have moved on. I don’t mention him. I don’t talk about him.”)
She goes to the cops and says she’s being stalked—not without reason. Except she looks without reason. Isshe? One moment we pity her, the next we’re suspicious. Are there really roaches crawling out of a hole behind the refrigerator? Is there even a hole behind the refrigerator?
“LET ME IN!” the book says. “Don’t let it in!” Samuel yells at her. But it happens. Capture is inevitable in horror stories.
Worms as food or food for worms
It’s an odd thing, though. As soon as the Babadook “gets her,” as soon as she becomes possessed by it, I stopped being afraid. Amelia is us, our eyes and ears, and the worst thing that can happen to her has already happened to her. More: she’s the strong one now. She’s in control.
Overall, in fact, I wasn’t that frightened by the film. And I scare easily.
I did like the ending. She barfs up the Babadook, more or less, and banishes it, more or less, to the basement. They live with it—this ghost or demon of her dead husband. Or maybe it’s just the weight of the memory of her dead husband. You can make that argument. You can even argue about the worms Samuel digs up in the garden and gives to Amelia to give to the Babadook. Are they to keep the Babadook alive—his food—or are they there to slowly eat him? To finally end him? Is it worms as food or food for worms?
I lean toward the former. Overall the movie’s about suppression. What we repress grows malformed and strong. (“The more you deny/ The stronger I get.”) The goal is to live with the awful thing in order to keep living, and that’s what Amelia and Samuel achieve. That awful thing in their basement? In most horror movies, that’s the starting point. Here’s, it’s the happy ending. It’s harmony.