Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rabbit Hole

The subject of grief is often depicted on film, in novels, very special episode of television, songs, Lifetime movies-of-the-week.  However, it's probably the hardest emotion to really honestly convey, with it hard internalization-- how does one present in the truthful way how someone suffers loss.  French films seem to always get it right somehow, as does the Season Five episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("The Body"), which elitists aside has made me ache more so than any other episode of television ever.  The latest to enter the canon is Rabbit Hole, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, who returns as screenwriter.  The film, a simple and delicate art film, is sparse and conventional, gracefully acted, writing with a precision; there's a lovely understatement and a natural ease gilded with surprising maturity by John Cameron Mitchell, the provocateur of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus.  While the least likely to tackle such heavy subject matter, Mitchell proves ideal is branching the play out (he realized with Hedwig that stage and screen are two very different mediums), opening up Abaire's words, without taking away it's delicacy.  In his hands the idea of two grown adults private suffering never feels heavy handed, but rare and honest and incredibly sad.

Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) are a married couple in the suburbs with a beautiful two-story house and white picket fence.  The setting has been proper movie fodder for decades; the Corbett's are a couple cinematic blocks away from the folks in Ordinary People.  They lost their only son, Danny, eight months ago.  Both have emotionally separated from each other-- Becca left alone at home everyday starts getting rid of the daily reminders of her deceased son; Howie plays home videos late a night.  She's brittle and he's just trying to be "nice."  The subtlety of the early scenes aims for a constant realism; ordinary people trying to deal, without any idea of how to do so, featuring slow shots of the very photogenic actors quietly suffering.  Without much of semblance of a traditional plot, Rabbit Hole exists as a constant mood piece, cobbling together a smattering of scenes, more novelistic than stagey, using them to channel the five stages of grief in a way that feels honest, engaging, at times very humorous, and excruciating.  To Abaire and Mitchell's credit, however, it never plays as any sort of exercise, but a real time through line to the universal nature of grief, expressed by two characters.

On the periphery of the sad couple are events that include the pregnancy of Becca's younger, immature sister (Tammy Blanchard), frequent visits from her mother (Dianne Wiest), which provide as much comfort as annoyance, a dealing with grief class that eludes Becca, but finds solace in Howie as he becomes close to a fellow griever, played by Sandra Oh, as well as the constant fascination on the part of Becca of the man behind the wheel responsible for the death of her 4-year-old son.  There's enough variation to keep everything moving at a brisk 91 minutes, but the parts of Rabbit Hole that are truly the most affecting involve little to no action.  The naturalness of Kidman washing her dead son's clothes, or placidly starring at a school bus, are what strike the most poignancy.  It helps that Kidman, who looks more warm and natural on screen here than in quite some time, is perfectly in tune with Becca, encapsulating such a depth sense of history and anguish, with a subtle nod, or passive stare.  She's clearly not afraid of fleshing her character's less likable qualities (a trait she's shown clear before, especially in her last notable acting effort, Margot at the Wedding), scolding when she feels threatened, cold when she feels someone reaching out.  For long stretches of Rabbit Hole, Kidman is so persuasive at portraying a woman disconnected and discombobulated from life, we, as her audience are reminded again of the great formidable talent she's so capable of, often of which major Hollywood ceases to truly understand.

Kidman is ably supported by Eckhart, whose on screen generosity is palpable.  Howie is character of coolness and control.  Stirred by Becca's more spiteful tongue, he's the one at ease, trying to be polite, and "nice," which I put in parenthesis because it's an adjective that has no place in real honest grieving, of which Becca understands.  Eckhart, relieved of his usual stock characters of assholes and douchebags (not that he typically doesn't play them well), is wonderful, in the non-threatening variety.  As is Wiest, who with a bull-free straight arrow manner, provides the film a solid foundation.  As anyone whose familiar with this marvelous actresses resume, it should be expressed that to any filmmaker or screenwriter, or actor, that Ms. Wiest is always the best secret weapon.  For even with a role as seemingly cliche or small as the one she has here, she possesses the ability to character a warm, human, funny and biting personality that genuinely makes the film leaps and bounds better.  Her final scene, a quietly riveting duet with Kidman, is the most honest and poignant in the film, not because it's a tear-jerking moment, or a volcano of actorly hamming, but because in it's simple dignity, it feels like a moment that could belong to anyone.  That it's done without heartfelt lessons or violins, makes it even stronger.

The most special novelty of Rabbit Hole for me is the thought that the sudden conventionality of director John Cameron Mitchell might make him a great director for hire, should Hollywood ever be brave enough to take notice.  He exhibits the grounded maturity of someone who can survive middlebrow art house films like this, and make them with enough intelligence and incisive stylization, that perhaps he can move forward and do a big studio film.  I can't decide which shade of Mitchell is more interesting: grown up filmmaker in the vein of Todd Field (In the Bedroom), or the hotshot flash-in-the-pants provocateur.  Either way, even without the un-simulated blowjobs in Shortbus, Rabbit Hole is a little, itty-bitty gem.  B+

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