Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Rabbit Hole"--A Movie Review

A couple struggles to come to terms with the loss of their four-year-old son in "Rabbit Hole", a film starring Nicole Kidman (as Becca) in a performance that deservedly earned her an Oscar nomination; and Aaron Eckhart (as Howie), who was unaccountably ignored by every award possible, in a  performance that I would champion as among the year's greatest.

With its wrenching and honest source material, wonderful supporting turns by Diane Wiest, Sandra Oh and the young actor Miles Teller, and sensitive and unobtrusive direction by John Cameron Mitchell (a real departure from "Shortbus"), this movie grabs viewers from the opening scene; I was absorbed until the final hopeful shot.

The film invites us to observe two normally loving, well-adjusted people as they attempt to cope with one of the most terrible losses one can imagine, often in isolation from those who can help the most.  Kidman's character flatly denies her feelings, and depends on rationalization; Eckhart's character prefers to remain in the past and relive it in old home videos; and Teller's character, who is deeply involed in the tragedy, fantasizes about parallel universes, and draws a comic book in which a happier life can be reached through a portal, or rabbit hole.

The film reveals the tragedy gradually, and honors the pace of its characters' healing, their relapses into grief,  their retreat to the sanctuary of memory or to the comfort of others, and their slow buildup to explosions of wounding anger that ultimately begin the healing process.

Among the many satisfactions of "Rabbit Hole", based on David Lindsey-Abair's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play,  is how well it translates to the screen.  I have not seen nor read the play, and it is a testament to the film's success that  I could not imagine it as a play. Lindsey-Abair also wrote the screenplay, and uses the grammar of film to reveal character and portray inner turmoil as only the intimacy of film can.

From the first scene, in Becca's newly-planted garden, the image of a severed blossom in her hand foreshadows the precariousness of her life.  Whether studying a character in isolation, or during a series of heated arguments, the camera is always at the right distance from its protagonists.  Except for a few cutaways to an enigmatic art project that is explained later in the story, the experience of "Rabbit Hole" is to dissolve the space between us and the screen: we forget that these are actors in a make-believe tragedy.

There is an almost biological naturalness to the rhythm and intensity of their eventual acceptance of their grief.  Not only do we identify with them on a deep and basic emotional level, but viewers have time to consider what losses they may have suffered in their lives (or those that will inevitably come) and reach a catharsis with these characters.

Nothing is forced...nothing is over-dramatized, as the situation is already fraught with drama.

The film wastes nothing.  In its relatively short running time, there are layers of backstories that involve us on their own, and deepen the central conflict.  

Becca and Howie need to heal at their own pace, separately in their own way, but by doing so risk their marriage.  A grief-therapy support group comforts him but infuriates her.  Becca's well-meaning mother (Wiest) reveals a son (Becca's brother) who died broken, of an overdose. Becca resents the comparison to her son's innocent accident, (running after the family dog when a car came a bit too fast), and must decide if she can derive strength from her mother's acceptance of a grief that never goes away. Becca's careless and carefree sister provides more reality than even Becca is willing to accept, turning away Becca's offer of the deceased son's clothing for her own soon-to be delivered child.

Howie, in the meantime, tries after eight months of mourning to find some semblance of domestic normalcy and affection from his wife, yet cannot stop watching videos of their son.  The family dog, too much of a reminder to them both, is staying with Becca's mother.  Howie angrily admits that he misses "him", meaning the dog but inside pining for his son. When he has nothing left, he turns to a member of the support group (Sandra Oh), whose husband is as resentful of therapy as Becca is.

Becca's grief manifests itself in a desire to confront the teen who was there at the accident scene.  These sequences provide some mystery and allow us to consider Becca's coming to terms with her unresolved maternal feelings through this young man (Tiller), a repentant and gentle fellow whose method of coping may help heal all of them.

I honestly did not recognize Kidman at first (she seems to have had some work done).  Beyond that, her embodiment of a grieving mother, and her slow realization that her son is gone for good and she must accept life without him, is flawless.  You might actually cheer for her during her questionable confrontation with a mother in a grocery store; and her body shows the resignation and despair as she dumps her son's clothing into a charity collection receptacle.  Her breakdown in a car near the film's finale is Kidman's crowning moment.

And is there a more under-appreciated actor than Aaron Eckhart? My sense is that he does not play the Hollywood game, is a workhorse with awesome talent, but goes unrecognized by the Hollywood promotion-mongers.  I could not take my eyes off of him whenever he was on the screen.  His characterization of Howie is tangible, likable, and charmingly flawed. Eckhart makes us understand this character through perfect readings of dialogue, his quiet expressiveness, his outbursts, even down to the way he dresses for a rendezvous. To me, Eckhart's Howie is the best-kept secret in movie acting this year, and is a sad omission from the Oscar roll call.

This movie is a nice companion piece to "Blue Valentine", a much edgier examination of a marriage in crisis.

"Rabbit Hole" succeeds in all departments and is a terrific adaptation of a play I must learn more about.  When it was over, my heart was broken, but I had a renewed sense of togetherness and life for these characters, who I had come to know for ninety minutes, in what I think is the most satisfying and accomplished little movie of the year.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this film, too, Tom -- for all the reasons you describe. The acting is superb, the story is compelling and universal (the thought of losing a child paralizes most of us), and the directing is spot on. I hope we see more of Aaron Eckhardt in roles like this where we see and appreciate a mature man's vulnerability. He is fabulous in this movie!