January 1, 2011
Rabbit Hole (2010) ****1/2
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Rabbit Hole (2010)- What a surprise departure for Mitchell! Tricky subject matter handled with a great deal of acumen. ****1/2 of 5
In order to avoid being pigeonholed as a certain "type" of filmmaker, it might prove wise for an up and coming director to accept a project completely outside of his comfort zone. Not only is it helpful for one's reputation, but it also might help strengthen one's abilities as well, forcing a relatively new director to think in ways and tackle problems he hasn't come across in his career thus far. Though he's been around long enough that no one considers him "up and coming" anymore, M. Night Shyamalan did something similar this year by directing a live action 3D adaptation of a kids cartoon show instead of a Hitchcockian psychological thriller with a glimpse of the supernatural often coming by way of a "wow" moment at the end. It's always important to credit risk taking in Hollywood, but by most accounts, The Last Airbender proved to be a colossal disaster, with many critics claiming that Shyamalan was playing completely against his strength of masterfully suggesting the presence of the unseen by trying to tackle an action epic using CGI to emphasize candid visuals.
Therefore, one must choose his or her projects carefully. Rabbit Hole is John Cameron Mitchell's third film, and it couldn't be more different than his first two--2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a glam fest about a transsexual punk rocker, and 2006's Shortbus, a humorous comment on society by showcasing graphic real sex. Instead of another visually striking film for a niche audience, Mitchell chose as his next project to tackle an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's very low key stage play about a couple dealing with the grief of the sudden death of their four year old son. Adding another difficult layer is the fact that we join the couple eight months after the tragedy, so we're restricted from the sort of explosive emotions one might expect immediately following something so harrowing.
Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play Becca and Howie who are clearly not doing well at all. Becca has become quite cynical and even downright cruel at times, which we see almost immediately when Becca berates another grieving couple for positing that God needed another angel in heaven in order to give some meaning to something beyond explanation. Becca is the last to learn that her sister is pregnant. This coupled with her mother's insistence on comparing Becca's son's death with the death of Becca's brother who was a thirty year old heroin addict when he died makes family interactions unbearable for her, and too often they don't end well.
Howie, on the other hand, is all-too-eager to try and take that next step, though his nightly ritual of watching a video of his son might be holding him back. He resents Becca for trying to erase evidence of his existence, at least that's how he sees it. He's even open to having another child, and after making the first romantic gesture towards her in eight months, she rejects him outright. As they grow apart, he connects with a woman from group therapy, played by Sandra Oh, whose husband just left her. They smoke pot nightly and clearly she would be willing to accept him romantically if he ever decides to pursue it.
Becca meanwhile has her own peculiar way of dealing with her feelings. She follows the school bus of the high school student who caused her son's death by accidentally hitting him with his car. Eventually, the two sit down for a conversation in a public park, which leads to an odd camaraderie between them. He shows her the comic book that he's working on called Rabbit Hole about parallel universes where everyone exists as themselves except by living lives different than they are in the real world. Becca finds this comforting.
Howie and Becca drift farther from each other with their dishonesty. Clearly, their son's death is either going to break them apart completely or somehow bring them together. Sadly, the odds are stacked against them. Either way, though, both have to figure out how to make it through each unbearably difficult day to the next one after that.
Rabbit Hole is not dealing with new material at all. If you want to watch a movie about a couple grieving the loss of a child, simply turn on the Lifetime Movie Channel and you're guaranteed to find something that day which is aiming to jerk the tears out of your eyes. Yet, Rabbit Hole is much smarter than that. This couple's struggle is thankfully foreign to most of us, and there is a place for heightened emotions and hyper-real dialogue within such a cruel tragedy. At the same time, there needs to be truthful insight or else we're left with just another manipulative manufactured weepfest.
Lindsay-Abaire wrote the screenplay himself, and he's able to keep us not only believing the struggles of our main characters, but also totally invested as well. We're presented with situations that are sort of expected but don't always play out in the most obvious ways. Take Becca's encounter with the high school kid named Jason, played by newcomer Miles Teller. Most people in Becca's situation probably wouldn't do what she did, but when the two are talking, the exchange feels very real, yet it still contains some mystery and intrigue. Is he taking the place of her son in her mind? Is she trying but not capable of forgiving him? Is she there simply to try and get answers to questions that really have no answers? There's not a single moment in Rabbit Hole where an actor does something totally unbelievable. Expectations are confounded, but never in a way that destroys believability altogether. This is tricky to do, especially considering how much we've seen this material in film and on television in the past.
Of course, perhaps the key to truth with this material lies with the performances. Aaron Eckhart has the more straightforward role of a man who wears his struggles on his sleeve. Eckhart, a fine actor, is certainly up for the challenge even if his performance isn't as compelling as Kidman's. Not only is Kidman one of the most talented actresses working today, but she's also one of the bravest, not afraid to take on projects with some of the most off-beat directors like Noah Baumbach and Lars von Trier. As a one-time gossip magazine staple, Kidman has proven over and over again that she's more than a pretty face. Here she gives one of her best performances as a woman on the verge of martial and personal destruction. She's cold to those around her, and yet she projects her struggles in her performance so well that we do warm to her at first through pity and later through respect. Granted, Kidman's accent work is a little bit questionable at times, but it's forgivable especially considering how good she is otherwise.
There's also a solid supporting cast including Diane Wiest as Becca's less sophisticated yet caring mother, Tammy Blanchard as her rough around the edges pregnant sister Izzy as well as the aforementioned Sandra Oh and Miles Teller. Mitchell's direction, though far from flashy, provides a texture which further helps to elevate this material beyond movie of the week pablum. The way he focuses on his actors' faces in just the right ways at just the right moments shows that he doesn't need visual flamboyance as a crutch for his talent behind the camera. Mitchell is one of the best directors working today. One only needs to watch all three disparate film to see this.
Kudos to John Cameron Mitchell and everyone involved for a wonderfully surprising, emotionally satisfying character study. The risk was well worth it. M. Night Shyamalan, on the other hand...well, I'll continue to root for you in the future.