Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole Rabbit Hole Rabbit Hole Rabbit Hole

By Patrick Z. McGavin

Toronto International Film festival (Special presentation)–After the anarchic sexual humor and audacious riff on gender identity marking first two features, John Cameron Mitchell explores a more disquieting and difficult emotional terrain with “Rabbit Hole,” his nakedly bruising and affecting adaptation of the David Lindsay-Abaire play.
 
Like his first two works, the Sundance-prize winner and original musical“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and grandiloquently perverse and flawed “Shortbus,” Mitchell has a sharp and intuitive sense for casting. This is a much less flamboyant or stylized formal work than his first two features. He is relaxed and comfortable enough to privilege the work of his excellent cast. He shapes and earns great work from his two leads, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as a couple whose privileged world is shattered by an unfathomable personal tragedy.
 
Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Eckhart) live in a suburban paradise, but it is clear from the chilly tones of the opening something is fundamentally off. With her hair pulled back and her face a mask of tightness and cold reserve, Becca turns down a social invitation from her next-door neighbor. At a group therapy she attends with her husband, Becca shows disdain for the other participants.
 
The rooms of their beautifully appointed home are flawless and forbidding, but also deprived of any spontaneity and joy. What emerges in the painful exchanges is the couple is still reeling, eight months later, from the accidental death of their four-year-old son, who was hit by a car while chasing their dog into the street. The Lewis Carroll-inflected title is not about childhood surrender but the pointed absence of a presence.
 
The tone is not always dour and solemn. Mitchell finds a looser and funnier rhythm introducing several of the secondary characters, especially Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), Becca’s wild and uprooted younger sister whose discovery of her own pregnancy adds further complications to their already contentious relationship. “Rabbit Hole” is also about a certain kind of flight, as Becca clearly abandoned most traces of her working class Jewish background, starkly symbolized by her mother (Dianne Wiest) and sister.
 
The death of her child has made her a pariah. Her husband’s friends have so far given her the cold shoulder in the aftermath of her son’s death, unsure of how to respond to her. Kidman and Eckhart turn out superb work, biting, confused, anxious, trying to negotiate the proper terms of their mourning and grief. As Becca struggles to find a workable balance between memories and moving forward, the movie takes a fascinating turn as she becomes more and more draw into the personal life of a somewhat enigmatic teenager (Miles Teller) whom she begins to follow after spying him one afternoon on the school bus.
 
The revelation of his connection to Becca is wounding in the particulars. The curiosity and natural friendship that develops between the two, particularly their own brand of shared grief and private rupture has a piercing understatement that colors the mood and tone without judgment.
 
In teasing out the particulars of this arrangement, Mitchell and his actors locate an inner tumult that offers a bracing contrast to the strangeness and rupture experienced by the outside world. Kidman and Eckhart are persuasive in cataloguing their pain and quiet desperation and how it manifests in questionable behavior, Kidman’s sometimes strangling need to spend time with the boy or Eckhart’s illicit attraction to a colleague (Sandra Oh) who’s also suffered a similar tragedy.
 
At times, the movie becomes almost too confrontational and self-justifying for its own good, like a nasty and unpleasant scene inside a grocery store as Becca upbraids another woman for the treatment of her own child. Becca’s cruelty toward her mother is also a little too explicit.
 
Like her work in Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding,” Kidman is at her steely best when she is absolutely fearless and uninhibited and utterly unafraid to appear selfish and self-aggrandizing. It is not always a reassuring portrait, but it has a recognition and power. Eckhart is, likewise, no wilting flower and he is able to summon a range of emotions.
 
“Rabbit Hole” is not a groundbreaking or profound film, but it is smart and compelling. Moreover, it allows the actors, especially Kidman, who has not given a strong performance in years, to strut their stuff.