Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Everyone grieves differently. Some turn to rage, some turn to silence... others turn to misery. Some will get over it, some will die trying. Rabbit Hole is a film that addresses grief in a pretty interesting way, allowing us to take peeks at several perpetually nuanced characters who must deal with the death of their children - and how they do so in different ways. It's a well-worn film theme, but John Cameron Mitchell's new film manages to tell the story in a refreshing way that feels painful and poignant - never allowing the heavy content to overpower the overall good-natured ideals of the characters we see. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also penned the film's screenplay), it'll be hard to find a film in 2010 that is as emotionally-gripping as this one.
The film follows a young married couple, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), who are struggling with the death of their young son, Danny. It's been eight months since the accident, but it still doesn't seem like closure is anywhere nearby. Howie tries to be constructive, inviting Becca to accompany him at local support groups filled with grieving parents. But Becca is unresponsive. Even worse, she's abrasive and attacks those who try to console her. Every step she tries to take toward any kind of catharsis is always thwarted by a memory, a bleak reminder of the young boy she used to have. "Does it ever get easier?" Becca asks her mother, Nat (played with exquisite grace by Dianne Wiest) who has also had to deal with the unfortunate death of a son. Nat responds, "No... but eventually it becomes bearable."
Danny's school artwork laces the refrigerator and his room is wall-to-wall with colorful clothes and noisy toys. A stay-at-home wife, Becca becomes bogged down by all these images and the weight of his death. She begins to wonder if life will ever be able to go on. But life does go on, whether she wants it to or no. Howie is able to continue on at work, playing squash with his friends and trying his best to maintain a normal life - the life he had before Danny's death. Not that he's forgotten Danny. He still watches old family videos that are saved to his phone and he quite enjoys looking at Danny's artwork. But the weight affects him in a different way, and his burden seems to manifest itself in frustration and perturbation. He works hard to help Becca cope, but she'd rather cope on her own and that divide has left Howie in a negative place that he fears very much. The divide is taking a toll on their marriage, as their tempers become short and their arguments become very, very explosive.
Many of the scenes within the screenplay are set-up to present Becca and Howie with harsh reminders of what they've lost. It's a testament to the skill of the actors and the delicate balance of Lindsay-Abaire's script that it never seems that way. The real flow of the film is in how they both react so differently. When Becca's rambunctious sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), announces that she's pregnant, the young couple are both forced into positions of fake happiness and helpfulness. When Gaby (Sandra Oh), a friend of Howie from the therapy group, admits that she and her husband have been going to therapy for over eight years, they both become visibly fearful of their future despair, but Becca is open about it, while Howie is quiet and polite. I'm not totally sure that Rabbit Hole shines light on moments of grief that haven't been in countless other films with the same theme, but it's the film's powerful characterization that sets it apart. We really feel for these people. When Howie and Gaby smoke weed before one of their meetings and subsequently laugh at one man's recounting of his rage in dealing with his daughter's death from leukemia, we somehow feel like we like them all the better for it.
This is the third film from independent director John Cameron Mitchell, who previously made 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch and 2006's Shortbus. Both of those films dealt expertly with sexuality - though mainly the search for sexual identity (which may be why Mitchell sometimes gets pigeon-holed as a "gay filmmaker"). Rabbit Hole is a very effortless change of pace in both theme and tone. It's his first film that is based on a script that he didn't write himself and is also the first time he's been able to work with legitimate Hollywood actors (the main star of Hedwig? Mitchell, himself). We can see that Mitchell trusts his actors and allows them to fire up and simmer down appropriately, staying out of their way in the more important moments. Some of his technical choices (Mitchell and cinematographer Frank DeMarco employed more handheld camera then I think was necessary) were puzzling, and expose some of the few flaws that the film has. In Mitchell's attempt to draw less attention to the camera (a whole lot less then Shortbus and Hedwig), he actually creates what most be his most off-balance film, camera-wise. Oh! The irony...
It may be silly to talk about a film as thematically powerful as Rabbit Hole and get stuck on technical minutia, since that is not the focus of this kind of film. Surely, Mitchell is able to put his own visual stamp on the film in other ways. One way, is through the character of Jason (Miles Teller), who is a young man with a budding talent in graphic art that has captured the attention of Becca. She follows his school bus to his home and stalk him all the way into a library. SPOILER ALERT!! (not really) When they finally begin talking face-to-face and develop a relationship, he surprises us with his true relation to the story. Jason's artwork appears several times as a visual motif, reflecting perfectly the anguish and twisted emotions that travel through all the characters. Animation is common in Mitchell's films, and while subdued here, still allows the movie to have a very John Cameron Mitchell-y feel.
But Rabbit Hole is most definitely an actor's film, though. Which is why it's wise that Mitchell allows them to roam freely. Kidman and Eckhart, playing so well off of each other, really execute something very difficult: they play the grieving parents with occasional histrionic emotion, while never allowing the performances to become over-the-top. Both characters grow exponentially through the film, almost to the point that their roles in the relationship completely switch by the end, but the two actors make it feel natural and realistic. I've never been a huge fan of Kidman, whose always been so emotionally cold and distant in her approach, but really instills the character with a dynamic resourcefulness and legitimate warmth in what may be the best performance of her storied career. And veteran actress, Dianne Wiest, so kind and wise as Becca's mother, really gives the film some much needed tenderness and perspective. The supporting turns from Teller and Oh are both effective, adding dimensions to the characters of Becca and Howie, respectively.
Rabbit Hole may get eaten alive by critics for its occasional visual miscues, but doing so will be ignoring what is truly powerful here. In John Cameron Mitchell's short filmmaking career he has established a reputation for being a talented visual director, but that takes a backseat throughout this film. And because of all that, I may have enjoyed Rabbit Hole more than any other film from 2010. It's honest and carefully told. It surprised me in moments where I least expected it to and contained performances that affected me deeply. It's not a perfect film aesthetically, nor is it flawless thematically, but it gives the audience an emotional experience that was absent from any film I'd seen in a very long time. It's unlikely that Rabbit Hole will attract much awards attention outside of a Best Actress nomination for Kidman (perhaps an adapted screenplay nom for Lindsay-Abaire?), which is a shame. But it should definitely be ranked amongst the best films of the year.