Rabbit Hole

Grief is perhaps the weirdest thing everybody eventually has to go through. It tends to deform our sense of the past and present; it’s like being on a hallucinogen that slows everything down unpleasantly. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helpfully defined five stages of it, but that might have been a comforting fiction. Grief isn’t tidy enough to stay restricted to five levels; it grinds on, painfully and inconveniently, and nobody can tell you when it will or should stop. Rabbit Hole is one of the few films that understand this. An affluent couple, Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), lost their young son eight months ago. Becca, who stays home all day being reminded of the boy’s absence, wants to eradicate any evidence that he was ever there. Howie obsessively watches a video of the boy on his phone whenever Becca isn’t around. These people are walking open wounds, and they can’t comfort each other or derive comfort from anywhere else.

Sounds depressing, but it’s precisely written (by David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his own 2007 play) and directed with clear eyes and honesty by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus). The movie doesn’t emote for us; it observes, quietly. This is yet another project in which Mitchell explores the trauma of outsiders and how they do or don’t communicate; Becca and Howie are outwardly conventional — nice home and cars, the usual — but their loss separates them from the larger community. People who haven’t been through it don’t know how to act around them. They try going to a support group, but Becca tires of the “God talk” — she takes offense at the notion that her son died because “God needed another angel.” This is the best Kidman has been in a film since Dogville; full of anger, but with no outlet for it, Becca punishes everyone around her and herself too, and Kidman conveys this mostly through small, razor-sharp shifts in intonation. Eckhart has the more difficult role, the husband trying to hold it together and make it back to some semblance of normalcy, and we see his own rage just in the way he plays racquetball near the beginning. Like Becca, he’s temporarily insane, but he has a job and must keep up appearances. At times, Eckhart’s mask of sanity, and how fast it drops, is more than a bit frightening.

Mitchell also, it seems, likes to focus on the pain of unformed young men — the identity-less Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis; the depressed, onanistic James in Shortbus. Here it’s Jason (Miles Teller, a genuine find), a smart teenager who accidentally hit the boy with his car. An odd but somehow logical relationship develops between Becca and Jason; they sit together in a park, talking quietly. Howie, meanwhile, continues going to the support group and finds solace (and marijuana) with the like-minded Gabby (Sandra Oh), who’s been attending for eight years. Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire satirize therapy-speak ever so gently, aware that it brings peace to some but becomes a crutch to others.

Hedwig and Shortbus are two favorites of mine, but Rabbit Hole solidifies Mitchell’s place on my brief list of directors I’ll follow anywhere. He seems to want to make meaningful, healing films without all the sentimental muck that usually coats Hollywood films that try it. His work here is stripped down yet expressive — subtly poetic, like Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, another drama about the anguish of wealthy suburbanites. I do regret a bit of character tidiness: everyone in the movie is there solely to make a further point about Becca’s or Howie’s pain, and Becca’s black-sheep sister Izzy (a lively turn by Tammy Blanchard) becomes conveniently-for-the-plot pregnant. But still, none of this is pushed; it’s as if we’re getting only the essential scenes and encounters from a marriage, with no flab. By the time Becca’s mom (Dianne Wiest), who’s suffered her own loss, defines the progress of grief in plain and simple words, Rabbit Hole has become a rarity — an honest work of catharsis.

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