91 Minutes // USA // Lionsgate Pictures
dir. John Cameron Mitchell / written by David Lindsay-Abaire
Monday, September 13th, 2010 – Toronto International Film Festival (Elgin Theater)
starring: Aaron Eckhart, Nicole Kidman & Miles Teller
Last decade, John Cameron Mitchell made a cozy (or rather angsty) little niche for himself as one of independent cinema’s most subversive filmmakers. With Hedwig and the Angry Itch and Shortbus, the former playwright quickly became the king of queer cinema. Problem was ostentation reigned supreme and while his films had small but albeit strong followings, his talent was never vocalized so that the mainstream could hear and take notice. This is fine because his latest feature, Rabbit Hole demands your attention towards this man and his directorial versatility. Ironically, this is by far his most dour film yet and shares very little with his previous two efforts. It is subdued to a surprising degree given the thematic ebullition that Mitchell loves to play with and that this feature more readily accesses than either Shortbus or Hedwig. It’s the story of Becca and Howie, their romantic destitution, their emotional strain and their drifting apart that promises to corrode their marriage.
Set eight months after the death of Howie and Becca’s son, this tale of suburban torment clears the emotionally exploitative content that would be the immediate harrows that must have followed the would-be tragedy. With the somber, yet not so low-key to be dismissed as a downplayed account of the story, the time writer David Lindsay-Abaire has allotted his couple to deal with their devastation is wise. Their time divorced from the incident gives flexibility to the amount of arguments and tears they share, whereas a more immediate account of the event would probably bog down the feature with assiduous accosting and lamented lambastes. It is elegantly located to precisely eight months after the death of their son Danny – especially when you acknowledge the feature runs its course over a month and their rebirth landing nine months after the death of their child.
There is similar subtle symbolism showcased in this earnest adaptation. The first that jumped out at me were the use of names – Becca and Howie, often the kid nicknames of Rebecca and Howard. In this quiet, yet entirely visceral way, we learn that despite what the characters may be professing as their individual takes on the tragedy, both of them are trying their hardest to retain a sense of youth in their home. And while this is obvious for Howie — what with his continued rewatching of home movies that feature Danny, keeping his room in tact and not wanting to move — it isn’t at all for Becca, who with her demanding to move and attempting to give/throw away all of Danny’s things, essentially wants to pull a Dr. Mierzwiak and erase all memory of Danny.
This, of course, is where the conflict is derived; with one parent wanting to cling onto the memory of Danny and the other seeking to destroy it. And this, unfortunately, is where most of the film’s problems are derived; that one parent is more humbled in their grief while the other allows cacophony to replace their honesty. This character is Becca and if it weren’t Kidman portraying the role perhaps the character wouldn’t have felt as icy as she did.
Becca’s problem is her uppity nature about things. The film is by no means one that asks the viewer to choose whose behavior is more acceptable in any given situation – in fact it’s quite the opposite – but a viewer can only take so much before finding a character, despite their grief, intolerable. Yes, Becca does have a moment of vilification towards the end when her character has an emotional catharsis – which can be seen as her finally accepting that her son is gone, as it appears she had pushed away the idea that he had ever existed for such a long time – which does mitigate the prior transgressions viewers may have been subject to, but for most of the film’s duration she is difficult to bear. (It would be criminal to neglect Kidman a mention for her work in that scene, though. Watching her cold desolation melt away into a warm, but painful acceptance of the truth is one of the finer bits of acting this year.) It isn’t difficult in a painfully honest way, but difficult in a “I cannot connect to this character” kind of way. This annoyance is all the more highlighted when juxtaposed to her husband Howie – especially immediately because it feels appropriate to (basically) root for Howie when he’s in an argument with Becca – who is defined by his tendency to not engage, but rather react when she is defined by the opposite. This is suggested throughout the narrative, but none more clearly than through the characters’ individual moments of “shock comedy”.
In Becca’s, she slaps the mother of a child pleading for a box of Fruit Rollups in one of her many attempts of bullying a situation so that it may fit into her guideline of what’s acceptable behavior. When experiencing it in real time it’s funny, but the harm done in the confinements of the world we’re watching is sad and irrevocable. What damage has she done to the child of the mother she has just slapped? Perhaps nothing (although he did seem petrified), but she’s reckless with her actions, yet is blind to seeing the wrong in them. On the other hand, Howie gets high with fellow “Coping With Child Loss” attendee Gaby (Sandra Oh) and snickers as a man talks about losing his daughter to leukemia. There’s no malice in his (re)action and thus is affable despite its un-PC nature. This is clearly not the case with Becca’s bitchiness, and this is the problem – that she is an extreme while Howie is a combination of things. Where Becca is a rancorous chastiser, Howie is quietly tragic man who is very comfortable in his being, but also one who is quick to sadness and who only wants for their marriage to make it and for Becca to be happy. He feels more real than Becca who feels like a character taken from the stage; one character point exclaimed beyond repetition. Whether it’s in the writing or in the performances, this is Rabbit Hole’s primary defect – that it doesn’t feel refined in its adaptation; that, no matter how many wide shots Mitchell uses or how nice some of the set pieces appear where they would not on stage, there is a fundamental problem in how some of the characters extant. I say characters because Becca’s sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) is plagued with the same loud selfishness. She’s just more insufferable.
Now I don’t wish to perpetuate the idea that Becca is utterly bothersome while Howie is outright lovely. That could have been the case if not for the plots each character had divorced from one and other. Becca has some really nice moments of softspokenness when engaging with Jason (Miles Teller), a rather reticent teen whose emotional absconder is attributed to his role in Becca’s ever-resonating pain. Jason is a character of great intrigue – one filled with social isolation and plentiful guilty which gives Teller a lot to do in his role, which he doesn’t quite exercise to its maximum worth, but who does great work in the role nonetheless – and his meetings with Becca are uncomfortable, but sad in a very simple, very real way. This gives Becca some dialogue that isn’t overly domineering and keeps the audience from feeling suffocated. On the other hand, Howie contemplates infidelity with Gaby which is a rather silly idea given the lack of time the two spend together and the motivation behind it. It’s only logical that it amounts to nothing because it truly does just feel like a half-baked idea to pump more tension into the story. Without this plot device to fuel Howie’s growth(?), Rabbit Hole would’ve felt less cliche and would’ve kept from cheapening the value of one of its protagonist’s. This is the only complete miscalculation of the film – the kicker is that it and the character of Gaby were nonexistent in the original play.
Although the tone doesn’t fluctuate much and some of the roles aren’t as mastered as one would like them to be, Rabbit Hole is a solid feature with its fair share of worth. Eckhart achieves a career best performance, Teller proves himself as a great young talent and Wiest in the role as Becca’s mother has an understated disillusionment that is hard not to love. While the film may not be the loudest or most honest, Rabbit Hole is spoken with an uncompromisable voice riddled with caustic wisdom and lachrymose ideals. It is one that rings mostly truthful and most thankfully never melodramatically in pontificating the woe of love in peril.