April 22, 2011


Rabbit Hole, a film about a couple grieving the death of their only son in a car accident, is something of a change for director John Cameron Mitchell while still being a deeply personal work. Mitchell is perhaps better known as the director of the outrageous Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the "family-values" baiting Shortbus. Both of these previous films have dealt with sex and sexuality, subjects obviously pertinent to Mitchell. Rabbit Hole is no less personal: he lost his younger brother when he was 14. As such, you can be sure Mitchell knows about families grieving. 

The film begins some 8 months after the accident, and focusses on Nicole Kidman's character, Becca. She seems to have shut herself (and her husband, Howie) off from the world. They no longer see friends, they don't go out, they just... exist, as best they can. Nothing is explicitly stated here, all the details are slowly teased out as they would be in life. Howie struggles to find a way to move one, while Becca seems to work to "erase" their son - packing up his paintings, getting rid of his clothes, wanting to move house. This all, of course, causes friction in their marriage. Eckhart as Howie and Kidman give such honest, raw and pared-down performances it never seems like they're "acting". 

As the story progresses, Becca continues to antagonise and push people away; including her sister and mother Nat (the wonderful Dianne Wiest), who also lost a son. The only person she really begins to talk to is the young teenage boy who was driving the car, Jason. She begins by stalking him - not in a scary way - rather, more out of curiosity than anything. They talk in the park, and he's shy and creative and remoresful and inarticulate. So, basically an actual teenager. Howie connects to a woman at group therapy (Sandra Oh). They get high together and they seem to make a real connection; the type of connection Howie is missing with Becca. You wonder how far they're going to take it, wanting and not-wanting them to do something.

But the film is not entirely a maudlin and depressing wade through a couple's grief. There are surprising moments of real, honest humour throughout; both for the characters and for the audience. These moments serve as tension relievers, just when they are most needed. One scene finds Howie and Becca at group. Instead of it being a circle of cycling grief, with everyone weeping, Becca just blurts out something so outrageous you cannot help but laugh in reflex. And you can see why Kidman was nominated for an Oscar for this performance; it is real and devastating. But you can also see why she wasn't in with a chance: it's too reserved for the Academy, she has internalised all her grief and she comes across inititally as cold.

Rabbit Hole marks an important maturity point for Mitchell as a film-maker. It is a quietly powerful film, about a tough and possibly touchey subject that never feels like a tough watch. Come the end, nothing is resolved, nothing is really tidied up. There are perhaps a couple of moments of cliche, but nothing ever feels like it's not real, not honest. And it helps that the film is anchored by such fine performances as these. I hope it finds an audience on wider release here.

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