REVIEW: John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole Is Sensitive But Not Bloodless
Perhaps the only thing harder than making a movie about young parents riven by grief after losing a child is sitting through one. And for that reason alone, Rabbit Hole won't make for a particularly cheery night out. But director John Cameron Mitchell -- adapting David Lindsay-Abaire's play -- has a surprisingly deft touch with this admittedly downbeat material; he builds dramatic intensity in subtle layers, rather than slapping it on with a trowel. Rabbit Hole is so unassuming, in fact -- it's filled with delicately calibrated performances and nuanced moments of connection and disaffection -- that the cumulative effect is a bit underwhelming. But you can't fault Mitchell's instincts; he's adamant about understating this material rather than sending it over the top, and that makes all the difference.
Nicole Kidman plays Becca, a suburban Connecticut woman who is still a wife -- to Aaron Eckhart's Howie -- but is no longer a wife and mom: We learn early on that the couple recently lost their young son; the specifics of how are revealed later, after Becca at first follows, and then confronts, a teenager who's about to graduate from the local high school, Jason (Miles Teller).
Becca is clearly having a great deal of trouble dealing with her son's death. When we first see her, she's gardening furiously and meticulously. A neighbor who stops by to ask her over for dinner (she declines a bit too sharply, manufacturing an obvious excuse) accidentally crushes a flower beneath her shoe. Becca hastens to assure her, extremely unconvincingly, that it's all right. This is probably a woman who felt the need to control everything even before her son's death; now, her self-involved fastidiousness is all that's holding her together.
It also appears to be driving Howie crazy. He tries to get her to attend group counseling for couples who have lost their children (one-half of one of these couples is played by a laid-back, effortlessly likable Sandra Oh), but she scoffs audibly at her fellow grievers' insistence that God must have had some good reason for snatching their children away. She grouses at her newly pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard) and snaps at her ditzy mother (Dianne Wiest), who's had her own share of grief as a mom.
Becca's social skills were probably nonexistent-to-minimal to begin with, but now they've burrowed deep underground. Kidman can handle this sort of role -- it's the sort of thing she's perhaps too good at handling. Kidman is extremely beautiful, in a scrupulously managed, climate-controlled way. Her skin is as translucent and fragile as a potato chip. At this stage of her life, she seems best suited to playing characters who have little or no use for other human beings (as she did in Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding) or who are radiant but sensible (as she did in Baz Luhrmann's Australia). But right now, there's very little in-between for her. Actors have to change with their faces, and Kidman's face is steadfastly resisting change. There's some life there, but is there any real life force?
Still, Kidman makes Becca sympathetic -- even with all her prickles, we can't help feeling something for her. Eckhart's performance is even better: He's having his own problems dealing with the couple's loss, and even though he at first seems to be the reasonable half of the pair, it becomes clear that he's also trapped by the irrationality of grief. The two bicker about how many memories they should attempt to erase and how many they should keep: Eight months after his son's death, Howie still hasn't removed the boy's car seat, claiming the couple hardly ever use that car anyway. (They have two -- this is an obviously well-heeled couple, but their money can't insulate them from pain.) Eckhart, even with that cast-iron dimple in his chin, goes beyond the stereotype of the wounded guy who tries to hold it all in; he's solid, but not stolid, and that makes his ultimate emotional reckoning that much more affecting.
But it's Teller, as the teenager who shoulders more responsibility for his actions than he should even be asked to bear, who gives the most moving performance here. His character is methodical and sensitive -- he's an aspiring comic-book artist, and we get glimpses of his work that suggest he's not only creative but also highly self-disciplined. Teller keeps everything beneath the surface, which, paradoxically and wonderfully, only makes him seem more naked. His scenes with Kidman, in which their two characters reach a halting, hesitant accord that's deeper than friendship, are the best in the movie.
Rabbit Hole is an ambitious choice for Mitchell, if only because it's not the kind of picture that allows his exuberant personality (so raucously, marvelously evident in his previous pictures, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus) free rein. But it does prove some new things about Mitchell, as well as reinforcing some things we already knew: He is, as we've already learned, a director who very much likes actors. (Not all directors do.) He doesn't allow them to put their skills on exhibit; he prefers to tease out the subtlety in them. And he knows how to present somber material without draining all the cinematic life out of it. (It helps that his DP, Frank DeMarco, makes sunny, affluent Connecticut look like a place that hides its sadness all too well.) Rabbit Hole is a spare, carefully made picture, but it's not a bloodless one. And it's just good enough to make you wonder what Mitchell will tackle next.