Rabbit Hole represents a radical departure for director John Cameron Mitchell, who previously brought us 2001′s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an alternately hilarious and tragic musical that redefined the possibilities of the genre, and 2006′s Shortbus, which famously included scenes of non-simulated sexual activity but handily avoided actual pornography by thoughtfully and poignantly exploring the lives of real, believable characters. Now Mitchell has departed from material involving botched sex-change operations (Hedwig) and self-fellatio (the opening scene! of Shortbus) to examine the lives of an ordinary couple dealing with the death of their four-year-old son. Compared to his previous work, this subject matter is notably restrained, and the result is a solid film that nevertheless could have been made by any competent director.
Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) are introduced to us eight months after their son was killed in a freak accident, run over by a car after chasing his dog into the street. They are each dealing with their grief in different ways, and the strain seems to be constantly threatening to tear their marriage apart. Howie believes in the value of group therapy, which Becca openly ridicules and soon discontinues; she prefers to be alone with her grief and actively removes the remaining remnants of their son from the house. While Howie makes a connection with Gaby (Sandra Oh), another grieving parent from the therapy group, Becca begins obsessively following Jason (Miles Teller), the high school kid who was behind the wheel of the car that killed their son.
Jason has, of course, been deeply affected by the accident as well, and he channels his feelings into a comic book called “Rabbit Hole” he is drawing and writing, which involves parallel universes and time travel. These ideas have a peculiar draw for Becca, perhaps because she wants to believe that somewhere out there, her little boy is still alive, growing into the mysterious and undeveloped potential she had always assumed they would have the time to discover. Howie makes a misguided attempt to sell their house, in order to escape the memories, but can’t bring himself to dismantle the child’s room, leading to a painfully tragicomic scene in which he unintentionally sabotages his own efforts.
The film is at its best in these moments, when it finds the absurd humor amidst all the tragedy, and in the quiet moments of connection between the characters, especially Becca and Jason. When Howie and Becca have their more explosive scenes together, the film edges dangerously close to awards-season mediocrity; it’s not that the acting isn’t solid, or that the emotions on display are unrealistic, it’s just that it is precisely the kind of thing we’ve seen a hundred times before, in films like Revolutionary Road (2008) for example.
Mitchell wisely avoids an excess of this type of melodrama, but perhaps the biggest problem with the film overall is that we are given very little reason to care about Howie and Becca as a couple beyond the fact of their shared grief. We don’t know much about who they were before tragedy struck, or why they were in love and decided to raise a child together in the first place. Perhaps this is intentional, and the film is trying to present a truly representative average couple, but this makes the film far less moving than the superior Blue Valentine, in which we are given fully fleshed-out people and vividly shown how they have fallen in and out of love over the years. In Rabbit Hole, we are given only the broad strokes of these characters’ lives, just enough to make them believable, and the result is that they are little more than vessels for grief.
Despite its flaws, this is a well-made and well-acted film that shows Mitchell to be an undeniable talent behind the camera. It is not as wildly original and exciting as his previous two films, but it should be good for his resume, a film that shows what he can do with more mainstream fare. Personally, I hope his next film returns to his roots, but even his middle-of-the-road work is better than average; Rabbit Hole is not exceptionally memorable, but it is certainly worthwhile.
Contact the Author: EzraStead@ArtsandEntertainmentPlayground.com