The movie tradition of — or is it obsession with? — lovelorn, recently divorced, or simply independent women embarking on Journeys of Self-Discovery is not new. Katharine Hepburn, Julia Roberts, Kate Winslet, Diane Lane, Amy Adams, and Marisa Tomei have hopped into gondolas, slurped spaghetti, or worn saris looking for the meaning of everything. Usually, all they discover is a new man. My planet was lonely, but then I met you. And the parade of sumptuous, rapturous, gorgeous, shimmering stuff — or in Winslet’s case in Hideous Kinky, Arabs — constitutes a kind of bourgeois travel pornography. Maybe you want what they’re eating. Maybe you want the local guy who wants them.
It can be nauseating. It can be seductive. It can be aspirational and fantastical and romantic. One thing that it can never be is a dare. The dares are for outdoorsy dudes in distress — Gerry, Into the Wild, 127 Hours — not grown women seeking a rebound. But watching Reese Witherspoon will herself along a 1,100-mile trek down the Pacific Crest Trail, all you feel is personal distress. You wonder if you would take the dare. Could I do this — hike and camp for months on end, sustaining myself on a diet of Adrienne Rich, purified water, and prepackaged slop? (I ask this as a man who thinks the world of Adrienne Rich.)
After one of her hiking boots tumbles over the side of a mountain and she tosses the other into the valley below, then screams an expletive after it, the closing credits would pretty much start rolling for me. But the opening titles haven’t even gotten going at this point and she’s got rags for shoes. The woman Witherspoon is playing, Cheryl Strayed, feels that she needs this journey. The movie is taken from Strayed’s hit 2012 memoir, which tells the story of her mother’s death at 45 of cancer and Strayed’s infidelity and heavy recreational drug use. The hike is meant to enlighten, purify, and, to a large extent, punish her — to break her down and build her up. The movie works because it makes you feel that this trek is both taking its toll and rejuvenating Strayed. What’s important is that this isn’t a movie about some woman from the luxury classes coming down from the mountain. It’s a woman with no money and no plan B daring to scale the mountain. The risk is total.
Despite any concerns about the vanity of the excursion — that this might be more a film about Witherspoon’s Witherspoonness (her sugar, salt, sweat) than it is an exploration of a personal volition — there is a wonder here. Witherspoonness can also be elemental: It levitates balloons. Writer Nick Hornby has pared down Strayed’s book to its most essential parts, and director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) and his crew have whipped them into a kaleidoscope of montages and flashbacks. They give the movie emotional spiritualism, practical transcendentalism, and human-scale comedy — some of which comes from Witherspoon’s appropriation of Strayed’s wryness in the film’s narration and some from simple proportionality, from its star struggling to stand while strapped to a backpack that might as well be a linebacker. Witherspoon practically weaponizes her smallness against her haters and the odds of completing this hike. It becomes the thing in the slingshot that socks Goliath in the eye.
The narrative leaps back in time to put Cheryl in both a Minnesota house and college with her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), who enrolled alongside her as a student. I don’t like the mother treatment that the movies are giving Dern lately — she was just weeping for a daughter dying of thyroid cancer in The Fault in Our Stars; now a daughter is weeping for her. But this is casting that makes sense as a woman’s memories of her mother (nine years separate Dern and Witherspoon), and Dern makes a full commitment, giving her gawky maternity some spectral quality. It’s as if she’s being remembered as a ghost and an angel. The editing whips Cheryl’s memories of her phase with drugs and extramarital sex into a vice salad. After a while, the formal rhythm takes over. It’s not a plot that you’re responding to — it’s a feeling. Switching between her forward trudge and the flashbacks creates tension, a kind of emotional fire.
The objections to Wild — or to the idea of Wild — seem to amount to the presumption that Witherspoon, who produced this movie, has bought for herself an awards-season special: lusty junkie in mourning goes on epic hike and takes Sierra Club righteousness all the way to the Oscars. Others will see that boot tumbling down the mountain or hear her, in a very funny montage, talking herself into loving cold mush and wonder where the drama is. You mean her arm never gets pinned by a boulder? But this isn’t a movie concerned with heroic endurance. It’s about atoning for her wrongs. You don’t use a boulder for that.
I’ve been thinking about how bad American movies have gotten at visual representations of interiority and approximation of psychology. They assume that the depiction of physical suffering and the triumph over it is a window into the soul. It’s just another form of can-do superheroism. Vallée meets the challenge of conflating external and internal energies. You could feel him going for that in Dallas Buyers Club, too, but the material was too linear to support it. Here he has at his disposal the vastness of the Pacific Northwest. Since Strayed didn’t make a fully ascetic commitment to this journey (there are trips into towns for provisions and apparel and conversations with strangers), Vallée doesn’t have to restrict himself, either.
The style doesn’t feel like justified escapism in the way that Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours did, with its use of kinetic photography, imaginative cutting, and sound. Here they feel like churning states of mind. There’s only some of Henry David Thoreau’s nature immersion in Strayed’s journey. But unlike this movie’s male peers, this isn’t a film about how nature can eat you up. And unlike its female peers, it’s not about rejuvenation at some person’s or culture’s expense. This land isn’t her land. The journey itself gets to you, but so does what it stands for. The only way out of the woods is into them.
Sometimes you go to a movie and know from the first image that whoever made it knows what she’s doing. You don’t need convincing. You’re there with her. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is like that. It’s her first full-length film, but it’s made with ruthless intent. The editing comes in quick, sharp slaps. She doesn’t waste a panning shot. Kent keeps you on edge for 93 minutes. She gives you whiplash. She freaks you out with her raw talent and a single brilliant idea: What if all these movies about possession — demonic parents, devil children, haunted homes — made some kind of sense? What if we’re actually talking about suppression instead?
In Kent’s movie, a single mother named Amelia (Essie Davis) and her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) share a big Australian house so plushly drab (the walls, floors, and bedsheets all gray, gray, gray) that it could double as coffin upholstery. Her husband died in a crash on their way to the hospital to deliver the boy. The twinned arrival of her son’s seventh birthday and the anniversary of husband’s death might be giving her the blues and Samuel the bends. She wants to stay asleep. He can’t stay still. Mama, read me a story. Mama, watch me do a magic trick. Mama, check out my portable catapult thingy. Mama, Mama, Mama.
The camerawork and cutting have ants in their pants. After one scene with Samuel, you think, On the spectrum for sure. Ditto for the filmmaking. But Kent turns the spectrum into a kaleidoscopic nightmare. Just when it seems to Amelia that things can’t get any worse, a children’s book shows up on her bookshelf. It’s a pop-up number called Mister Babadook. Its images are in coal black. The beaked title character wears a top hat that looks tough to remove with those thick spikes on his hands. This is an inexpensive-looking movie (some of the budget was raised through a Kickstarter campaign), and yet that book is more evocative than anything currently being shown in 3-D or IMAX. The whole movie comes honestly by its style.
As Amelia reads Samuel the book, Mister Babadook doesn’t pop off the page. He creaks up from it. The message? “You can’t get rid of the Babadook.” Indeed, you can’t. Soon, Amelia’s depression and Samuel’s possible autism are enhanced by the physical arrival of this demon, which is possibly a metaphor for both conditions and whatever pharmaceuticals might be used to treat them. Each attempt to rid their lives of the book strengthens the title character’s return. (Whatever you’re paying for this movie — it’s playing on about 53 movie screens and is available on demand — the vocal desiccation sound effect used when Mr. Babadook pronounces his name or rings up Amelia on the telephone is worth every dime.)
Soon, possession sets in. Samuel terrorizes a cousin at her birthday party. Amelia, thwarted from masturbation, sleep, and general peace, terrorizes him. Wiseman might be the most gonzo 7-year-old actor I’ve ever seen. Working with the same bowl cut that Danny Torrence had in The Shining, he plays the part like a feral pet. When Samuel screams about Amelia that “she won’t let me have a birthday party and she won’t let me have a dad,” Wiseman delivers the line so that you’re unsure whether to call Chuck E. Cheese’s or Father Merrin.
Kent gives you all the bad-dream horror scenarios but refuses to stint on their cause. When Amelia finds clumps of glass in her soup, the boy says the Babadook did it. It’s not quite blame you hear. It’s truth. All the dread comes from the refusal to make a distinction between the fantastic and the psychological. She actually conflates them. Here there’s no difference between sleep deprivation and spiritual possession. The latter might be a version of the former. Amelia’s desperation to calm her son down, to drain some of the mania from him, drives her to ask a doctor to give him a sedative. This is heartbreaking at the same time that it’s scary.
Kent treads a well-worn road — The Exorcist, The Shining, and The Conjuring, to name three of dozens — but she’s clever about how to repave it. Most films about wronged mothers and possessed children puke up all their images. They want to spook you with cheap edits and lots of noise. But the family business never has an internal logic; the horror imagery comes at you but it rarely amounts to anything. Kent knows the meaning of her images. She knows when to hold a shot so that its power (just two people standing together in a frame against gale-force wind) leaves you so exhilarated that you just well up with appreciation of the skill.
It’s as if she’d had enough of the cheap shots that horror movies take at maternity. Her rebuke is like emptied-out German expressionism that’s retrofitted with one of Roman Polanski’s claustrophobic horror films. Those allusions alone might have been a satisfying exercise (there also are onscreen references to the silent-movie pioneer George Méliès and the Australian kiddie adventure Skippy the Bush Kangaroo). But The Babadook gets more triumphantly grim as its goes. Davis, meanwhile, just get more triumphant. This is ultimately a mommy fantasy about slaying suppressed darkness. In an hour and a half, Davis finds a way to make allegory emotional. Her performance goes from haggard dramedy to opera. It’s perfect for Kent’s exhilarating cultivation of an alternative route for horror. Boys swing chain saws. She swings moods.
You won’t believe this, but Kent’s isn’t the only horror film out now that’s bent toward Polanski and expressionism by a rookie female director. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is more arch than The Babadook. It’s a black-and-white vampire movie, set in an Iranian nowhere, whose vampire (Sheila Vand) wears a chador and stalks the unpeopled streets on a skateboard. It’s more than 100 minutes, which is 30 too long for such minimalist set pieces. She — The Girl — visits the lair of a junkie gangster (Dominic Rains, who’s great), and she starts a thing with a hipster (Arash Marandi) whose old man (Marshall Manesh) is a junkie, too. That’s it.
But Amirpour almost gets away with some of the nothing that happens — it’s like a Marjane Satrapi graphic novel with a John Hughes sense of hormones and mixtape. (You could watch this with the sound off, but the electro-pop soundtrack’s too good.) She’s got a handle on drollery and vibrant framing. This movie is funny and hot. The Girl drops her fangs the way a switchblade pops out of its casing. I jumped. Then I laughed, not at myself for jumping, but because Amirpour is having a Polanski moment. She’s enjoying the conflation of comedy, death, and sex.
The expressionist shadows, floating chador, and wilted patriarchy (the men here are all either strung-out bullies or effete beauties) make the whole movie feel forbidden. There’s something in the nothing. She could have taken this further, but why? What she’s got is a deadbeat party. This is a good imitation of Stranger Than Paradise–era Jim Jarmusch and better than Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch’s imitation of himself. Amirpour doesn’t have to assert cool. Her movie embodies it.
This article has been updated to correct an error; Mister Babadook shows up on a bookshelf, not a doorstep.