When compared to his first two films, ‘Rabbit Hole’ appears to be an unlikely choice for the director, John Cameron Mitchell. Both his previous efforts, ‘Shortbus’ and ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’ were outrageous and off the wall, not the sort of thing that you would take your mother to see unless she happens to be the broad-minded type. ‘Rabbit Hole’ is subtler and a tad more sensitive but it still possesses an underlying rebellious streak in its handling of the topics of child death and bereavement. If there is one factor shared by Mitchell’s films, aside from the fact that they are all pretty good, it is the frankness and honesty at the heart of each one.
‘Rabbit Hole’ began life as a Broadway play but it has managed to throw off much of that medium’s spatial limitations in its translation to the cinema screen. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play a married couple called Becca and Howie, whose life has come to an abrupt halt following the sudden death of their infant son in an accident. Now, they are merely going through the motions. Howie still goes to work and Becca stays at home to look after the house and garden but the joy has been ripped out of their existence. Despite Howie’s attempts to interest his wife, the couple no longer make love and the social invites from their caring neighbour are politely declined.
The couple attend group therapy but it is little help. Becca becomes annoyed at her fellow attendee’s attempts to instill some divine purpose into their loss. If God had really wanted another little angel, she reasons out loud, then why could he not have just made one. Howie is left to attend the sessions alone and he becomes close to another bereaved parent, Gaby (Sandra Oh.) Together they discover that group therapy is a lot more fun if they smoke a sneaky joint beforehand.
Meanwhile, Becca has a chance encounter with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager who had been driving the car that killed her son. Though Jason was not to blame for what was a tragic accident, he still struggles to come to terms with the events of that terrible day. His catharsis comes in the creation of a beautifully psychedelic comic book that shares its name with the film and imagines the existence of wormholes and alternate universes which might possibly offer up the chance to cheat fate. Through such fantastical concepts, Becca and Jason form an unlikely bond and find some comfort. Ultimately, their friendship will push Becca and Howie’s marriage to breaking point.
‘Rabbit Hole’ is a film about people searching for way to fill an awful void that has opened up in their lives. Jason does this through his own creativity, Becca sees Jason as a possible future projection of what her son might have been and Howie drifts towards a potential affair. Each in turn feels that no one else can possibly understand their pain but in truth it is in each other that their salvation lies.
One imagines that the emotions and behaviour exhibited in the film, with its excellent screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (the play earned him a Pulitzer), are entirely accurate. The dead child’s drawings remain pinned to the fridge and his bedroom has been left untouched in an act of both denial and memorial by his parents. There is a highly-charged scene where Becca and Howie argue with each other, both attempting to take the blame for their son’s accident.
With the introduction of Jason and his wormhole theories it feels for a moment that ‘Rabbit Hole’ might disappear down the ‘Donnie Darko’ route. It never goes there but then these characters already inhabit a godless universe where chaos rules. If the film has a message, it is that there is no divine plan for us but we are governed by happenstance in an ongoing series of coincidences.
Nicole Kidman, her Becca brittle yet scathing of pity, is outstanding in this film, so it is little surprise to see her on the Oscar list although all the acting is very strong. Dianne Wiest, once a reliably kooky presence in Woody Allen films such as ‘Hannah and her Sisters’, is particularly convincing as Becca’s mother who has suffered a loss of her own. The real discovery of ‘Rabbit Hole’ is Miles Teller, who is making his film debut as Jason. There is a quality to Teller, who reminded me somewhat of a young John Cusack, which gives him an arresting screen presence. On this evidence, the actor is certainly someone to keep an eye on.
A film about the aftermath of a child death may not be the most enticing prospect for a night out at the pictures but ‘Rabbit Hole’ is well worth your time. It is mournful but not depressing, moving without being sentimental. A potentially heavy storyline is leavened with humour. This film might also make you think a little about life, the universe and everything. Wormholes included.
Director:John Cameron Mitchell
Cast:Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh
Runtime: 92 mins