Rabbit Hole
First screened in October 2010 / Most recently screened and reviewed in January 2019
Director: John Cameron Mitchell. Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Tammy Blanchard, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito, Jon Tenney, Patricia Kalember, Jay Wilkison, Marylouise Burke, Phoenix List. Screenplay: David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his play).

Twitter Capsule: (2010) Script changes a mixed bag. Gets richer as it goes, largely thanks to smart, well-cast actors. Welcome back, Nicole.

Second Capsule: (2019) Oddly inhibited about playing to its strengths: the tart language, the rich connections between key actors. Middling.

VOR:   Even when the actors are firing, the experience feels disappointingly familiar, and borderline missable. Most unique aspects go under-exploited.

Photo © 2010 Lionsgate/Olympus Pictures
At several, seemingly non-diegetic points in Rabbit Hole, the camera lingers over elaborate line drawings and paper-based collages, sketched and assembled by an anonymous hand, obsessively rendering the same, dense web of trumpet-shaped pipes. They suggest a molecule made of nails or an artist's scaled-up rendering of a white blood cell or a spherical knot of conduits leading nowhere, or perhaps leading into each other. These close-up spectacles of artistic process—ultimately revealed as pages of a boy's graphic novel, slowly taking shape—are hypnotic every time they surface as abstract inserts within this otherwise realistic drama. They indicate more closely than anything else in the film that its director is John Cameron Mitchell, who oversaw the glittery, chintzy, flamboyantly retro-alien mise-en-scène of his self-starring rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and who doted over the offbeat crafts projects, the bespoke video-based suicide notes, and the calico chambers and corridors of an underground home-away-from-home in Shortbus. Mitchell digs other people's weird art as much as his own. He is gifted, too, at teasing out surprising tonalities of anger, despair, and yearning in objects and aesthetics that appear boisterous or beautiful. It's no shock that his camera is so aroused, albeit in a coolly fascinated way, by the work of Rabbit Hole's despondent high schooler, who imagines a galaxy replete with metaphysical chutes and ladders, wrinkles in space and time that allow people to live in multiple places at once. Perhaps, via these unseen dimensions and the channels that traverse them, those who have died in our world might survive in another reality. Becca (Nicole Kidman), the story's central character, is seduced and even comforted by these images when they arrive into her hands from their teenaged creator, Jason (Miles Teller), whose library books about parallel universes she has already consumed with secret fervor. "I like that thought," she confides, quiet and smiling, about Jason's notion of "rabbit holes" stretching hither and yon, tying together the infinite, alternate lives that the same people might play out. "Somewhere out there I'm having a good time."

Rabbit Hole, as a movie and even as a play, might have ventured further into these speculative fantasies, which seem ready to push the text in more challenging formal and thematic directions. But that's not the piece that David Lindsay-Abaire wrote, or for which we won his Pulitzer Prize. On balance, Rabbit Hole is primarily a drama about parental mourning and about the hardship as well as the beauty of sustaining vital bonds, especially under grief's shadow. These include relations to a spouse, to a parent or sibling or child, to oneself, or to strangers who become intimates by random, horrifying circumstance. Becca, in her forties, recently lost her young son when he ran into the street and was struck by Jason's car. Her devastated husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) feels the same degree of grief she does, but perhaps in different ways, or according to different up-and-down cycles. For reasons Becca cannot articulate, spending time with the teen who brought about her only child's death, for which she considers him blameless, fills an inchoate emotional need that neither Howie nor her mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) nor her sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) nor any of the other likely suspects in her life can satisfy. The drama of Rabbit Hole, at least ostensibly, concerns how Becca and Howie especially will pull themselves out of their emotional nadirs, whether they can do so together, and whether they can part with their crutches of choice: Howie's support groups and worshiped mementos of Danny, Becca's sarcastic rejoinders to other people's coping strategies and their fumbling attempts at solace.

Rabbit Hole is perfectly fine as an execution of these poignant if slightly familiar themes—what artists regularly describe as topics "nobody talks about," and yet so many stories do. As a movie, it works best at moments when Mitchell exercises the lightest hand, giving his actors the freest rein to explore a scene's boundaries and respond to each other spontaneously. Becca and her mother, despite their volatile relationship, share one episode of chortling over a family friend who became too solicitous for Nat's taste, in the hour of her own maternal grief. Their laughter feels organic, as if the actresses themselves are fully in touch with each other and with a core of humor they've blissfully located within this sobering text. The scene cuts away abruptly, as if the performers are about to break character, and it's gorgeous. Meanwhile, Kidman and Teller achieve the richest, most flexible rapport in the film, visibly reacting to subtle gradations in each other's line readings and physical comportments. Whether airing and accepting a very difficult truth about the fatal accident—a potentially histrionic scene that Mitchell, Teller, and Kidman approach with revelatory calm—or navigating a crisis when Jason shows up unannounced in Becca's kitchen, the Oscar-winning pro and the promising rookie feel uncannily attuned. Some of these scenes Mitchell shoots in alternating close-ups, which is a little grammatically boring but which the actors amply reward. Sometimes, as in the big kitchen confrontation, he backs up his camera to catch all the inflections and fluctuating energies each cast member puts out. Either way, what passes between Kidman and Teller (and thus between Becca and Jason) inspires some of Mitchell's simplest, most trusting, most effective direction. The other actors seem to sense it, too. Blanchard and Eckhart are truer and more powerful in the one scene they share with Kidman and Teller than they are in other sequences that showcase their characters to greater degrees.

Elsewhere, however, Rabbit Hole feels cinematically stiff and uncertain of itself, which is all the more disappointing since the cast and the material are so strong. It was adventurous of Kidman and her fellow producers to recruit Mitchell, the more-is-more satyr behind Hedwig and Shortbus and How to Talk to Girls at Parties (where Kidman would later play an actual alien. That said, Rabbit Hole's failures to reach its potential fall pretty squarely on his shoulders. I wish it were because his flashy, lusty, restlessly creative sensibilities proved a bad fit with this classically conceived text. The problem is opposite, despite coming from a worthy place: Mitchell has embraced the challenge of directing a piece far afield from his usual metier, subduing most of what's distinctive about his style, whether to establish his own range or to honor his perception of the script and its premise. Sadly, he shows little knack for the kind of storytelling Rabbit Hole requires, and his feeling for cinematic form, so electrically adventurous in flashier contexts, gets exposed as rather thin. Mitchell's shots are often pedestrian and never achieve a nimble point of view, whether of its own or as guided by one of the characters. We sense trouble from the prologue, as Becca tends to her garden in a series of oversaturated, unnaturally lit, rigidly center-framed images, cutting to gratuitous shots that belabor the already-obvious symbolism of this scene (a lovely flower, soon trampled underfoot, etc.). Frank DeMarco's lighting remains pretty weird throughout, sinking the house into an overstated funereal gloom during several of Howie and Becca's domestic scenes, and erring at other times on the side of unflattering, nearly-flourescent over-brightness, which does nothing to make Rabbit Hole seem less televisual. The editing and sound work are just as questionable. A later scene of parallel action, where Becca and Howie each find themselves driving toward very different rendezvous, is cut and mixed as if presaging another automotive calamity that does not transpire. That misdirection feels arbitrary and, in context, pretty tacky. A late sequence of indulgent slow-motion bluntly restages a terrible memory that resonated more via less direct figures. A damp finale is made worse by the music score's pastiche of faux Arvo Pärt, a decade into his cinematic career as the standing soundtrack of genteel sorrows.

As a whole, Mitchell's direction suggests a graphic-novel enthusiast straining to produce his notion of a glossy coffee-table book. I kept thinking of Julia Roberts's anecdote about nearly accepting a script offer while she was working on Erin Brockovich because it embodied a complete departure from all her ready gifts as an actor, and Steven Soderbergh asking, "But why, Julia, would you do that?" Granted, I'd rather have artists over-step than avoid risks, and at least you never doubt Mitchell's sincerity. If anything, Rabbit Hole can feel too warm, too earnest, steering actors away from the acerbic bent of several great lines and rude interjections. Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay is an impressive feat of tonal modulation, oscillating among irony, candor, despondency, and humor within single passages. It's destructive whenever Mitchell allows his cast to ignore that kind of expressive precision in favor of channeling pure emotional intensity. In one late-night quarrel that should feel like a pivotal turn but instead plays like an unpolished rehearsal, Kidman and Eckhart ratchet up each other's garish blasts of spousal recrimination. They've been directed to release everything they've previously bottled up—an approach Mitchell will indulge again later, when he requires of Kidman a long-postponed crying jag in her car. But there are so many cues in Rabbit Hole that Becca and Howie have not been suppressing ugly feelings so much as meting them out in constant, low-frequency streams: she with her lacerating and often quite funny asides, he with his hale pretense of Doing Much Better, which anyone can see through. That "anyone" includes prospective buyers at an all-advised open-house for Becca and Howie's home, a scene that's been added from the play and which is easily Eckhart's best.

Rabbit Hole, then, is a strong piece, clumsily managed. The outer orbit of supporting characters never stop feeling like extraneous add-ons, especially Blanchard as Becca's pregnant sister and Sandra Oh as a support-group acquaintance who emerges as Howie's playmate and sounding-board, and seems ready to be more. Any sentence I might write about Giancarlo Esposito's walk-on as Blanchard's boyfriend would be longer than his combined screen-time. Meanwhile, neither the language of the play nor the language of cinema seem to inspire Mitchell's choices. He seems to crave a moving paean to sadness, compassion, and resilience, and that ain't nothing, but Rabbit Hole's version of that story is pricklier and funnier than many others out there, in ways the movie mostly misses. The narrative is still compelling, and the actors care about what they're doing, so my mind was never elsewhere while I watched it. But mere minutes after Rabbit Hole ended, I projected myself into one of Jason's wormholes, imagining a parallel adaptation where he gets as many scenes as Becca does, affording Teller's gentle, eloquent reserve (rarely repeated in subsequent projects) an even bigger platform, and where the magical chemistry between him and Kidman assumed its rightfully central place. In this alternate version, framing and lensing can do poignant, actor-friendly work that relieves the need for so many reaction shots, and Mitchell, if he's still around, contemplates which tools in his repertoire could illuminate this story in apt but unexpected ways, rather than electing what he needs to muffle about himself in order to meet a more blandly-imagined occasion. I like the Rabbit Hole we have just enough for what it is, but somewhere out there, watching another Rabbit Hole, I'm having an amazing time. Grade: C+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Nicole Kidman

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Nicole Kidman

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