Friday, January 28, 2011

Rabbit Hole (2010)

Grief is a universal emotion, one that, whether we like it or not, we all have to experience at some point in life. And, apart from catharsis, it is perhaps the most powerful emotion known. Grief has the power to completely alter a person, or at least bring deeper characteristics to the forefront. It can destroy relationships, consume and define people, and forever change their lives. However, it can also be powerfully inspiring, as sometimes these changes can be for the better, enriching us to become new, improved versions of ourselves. Though this isn't always the case - everyone handles grief differently, after all - it is at least a possibility.

Rabbit Hole, based on David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize winning play (he also wrote the screenplay), offers a glimpse into how one couple grapples with grief. Howie (Aaron Eckhart, his chiseled good-looks tinged in sadness) and Becca (a truly magnificent Nicole Kidman) are still dealing with the death of their four-year-old son, who was hit by a car outside their home. Neither one of them is really taking it well: Becca quits going to group counseling and takes out her anger on those around her, particularly her mother (Dianne Weist, always a welcome presence) and more-outgoing, newly pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard, a Broadway veteran). Howie, on the other hand, continues going to group, but sits up every night watching a video of his son on his cell phone, desperately clinging to it as though its the only way he can remember him. As Becca becomes more and more removed, grief finally beginning to overcome her, the couple has to figure out how they can possibly move on from such a devastating tragedy, which includes Becca meeting with Jason (Miles Teller), the kid who was driving the car on that fateful day.

Though there's never much mention about what Becca and Howie were like before the accident (apart from a brief scene that implies that Becca used to work for a company in New York), but its a testament to Eckhart's and Kidman's performances that you can tell that they've changed dramatically. They were not always this way, removed from reality, only socializing for family and group counseling. Kidman certainly deserves her Oscar nomination for this role, as she gives life to Becca with subtle, naturalistic empathy; she only has a few really big "actor-y" moments. Which is actually what surprises me the most about Kidman's nomination: she gives a very subdued performance, while Eckhart gives the more actor-y, scenery-chewing Oscar-bait performance, shouting with conviction during their arguments as if he were making sure that they can hear him in the cheap seats. This isn't meant to be a knock against Eckhart; he's very good in the film, and I enjoyed his performance (case in point: just watch the scene in which Jason comes to visit during the couple's open house and marvel at Eckhart's rage), its just that I'm surprised that Kidman's drastically quieter work got all of the attention. That's just not the way Oscar usually works. 

The film is directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who's previous efforts are Hedwig and the Angry Itch (about a transexual East German rock star) and Shortbus (a mediation on sex in post-9/11 New York in which the actors have real sex). Given the sexually-charged subject matter of those two (excellent) films, it might come as a surprise that Mitchell would direct a more "mainstream" film such as Rabbit Hole. But Mitchell, though notably subdued, doesn't take the typical approach to the material. He emphasizes the focus on the characters, and avoids conventions by sticking to the realism of Lindsay-Abaire's screenplay. That includes adding a few moments of terrifically-earned humor, such as Kidman's inappropriate reaction to a couple in group who claims that God took their daughter because "He needed another angel." In the end, he proves to be an inspired choice for director, taking on the material from a new angle and allowing it to breathe and become something original.

One of the film's subplots includes Jason working on a comic book, in which a young boy's father dies, leading him to explore alternate universes to find him. In a way, the film shows us how each character has created his or her own "rabbit hole" that keeps their son, Danny, alive. Becca wants to donate all of Danny's clothes to her sister; even though she gets rid of the family dog and wants to sell the house, she still hasn't cleaned out his room, and the offering of her clothes to her sister shows that, deep down, she's still clinging to the hope that she can, in some way, revive Danny. Howie has this same drive, but his is much more explicit, as he loses control of himself when Becca takes Danny's pictures off the refrigerator and other efforts to remove Danny from the house. Howie wants to see Danny's stuff as it was when he was alive, since this is the only way he can keep him alive; this is why he's so attached to his video. Its here that grief threatens to tear them apart, and its unclear whether they'll ever be able to overcome their grief.

Rabbit Hole is a quietly powerful study of the effects that grief can have on people. It doesn't offer any impossibly convenient answers, instead showing how grief can never really be erased, only coped with. Its a terrific film, one of 2010's most overlooked efforts. 

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