That John Cameron Mitchell? If you have seen the the director's first two features, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, you might well be surprised to see his name attached to Rabbit Hole, by all appearances a conventional drama about a couple trying to cope with the death of their son some months earlier. There is, after all, nary a scene in Rabbit Hole in which a man performs fellatio on himself. Nor are there any plot lines dealing with a transexual who laments not only rock stardom stolen from her but a sex change that resulted in a stump of a leftover penis (that the angry inch). There's really nothing much about penises at all here. But if you have seen Mr. Mitchell's first two full-length films, you know they were largely stories about longing and loss. Amidst all the potentially sensationalistic trappings of "Hedwig" and Shortbus, the emotion vented was as universal as it was dead-on to the given circumstances. Viewed in that light, Rabbit Hole is simply another step in a progression for John Cameron Mitchell, and a very impressive one at that.
Rabbit Hole was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his Pulitzer-Prize-winning play. The film is set in the verdant environs of Larchmont, a clearly well-to-do town just north of New York City. After a few images which set the comfortable, affluent scene, we see Becca (Nicole Kidman) dragging a bag of topsoil across her yard like a burden. She plants a perennial border and then waters the plants - the spinning of the hose reel one of a couple of striking, rotary images that Mitchell captures as Becca goes about domestic tasks - before admiring her work. The scene has the hallmarks of a new beginning, until a neighbor, Peg, having come from next door to invite Becca and her husband Howie to a cookout, inadvertently crushes one of the plants underfoot. Don't cue the happy montage music just yet.
Inside the seemingly perfect home a few hours later, Becca is preparing dinner when Howie returns from his day of work. Howie comes in the form of Aaron Eckhart, he of the chiseled physique and face, jutting cleft chin and sandy brown hair of such a golden and orderly nature that you would think it purchased from the an L.L. Bean catalog, along with a pair of chinos and a polo shirt. Howie and Becca look like they have popped off the top of a wedding cake and assumed flesh, trim figures and tasteful clothes. But after a bit of smalltalk - "If Peg asks, we went out tonight....We saw the Stoppard play." "Did we enjoy it?" "Very much." - Sam wraps his arms around Becca as she's at the stove making some risotto. "Careful, Howie. The pan's hot," she says as she squirms free, as she had more genially from Peg's earlier invitation. Nothing about the scene is overplayed, but one gets the feeling Howie has been facing the hands off policy for a while and is growing weary of it.
The feeling of unease is emphasized later yet when Becca is reading. The loudest sound in the spacious home is that of a ticking clock . It's not the sort of quiet born of serenity, but one that speaks to an absence or vacuum, although nothing has been said at this point about the death of their son eight moths earlier. It's the sort of silence through which something as simple as a ringing phone can raise the hair on end like a jolt of electricity. That's just what occurs when the phone does ring. After considerable hesitation, Becca answers and finds herself summoned to the Yonker's Police Station, where she picks up a woman, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), slightly younger than herself. Is she a friend? A family member? The only thing obvious is Becca's chagrin at having to collect Izzy after the latter got into a bar fight. "You can't keep doing this. You're not a kid anymore." "I didn't know there was a cutoff date." "Well there is. For acting like a jackass, there's a cutoff date."
Like every significant relationship (or event) in Rabbit Hole, the nature of that between Becca and Izzy is gradually revealed, not provided in an expository dump. The back and forth narrative, the like of which Claire Denis utilizes so well in many of her films, is a common enough thing these days. One need only go back as far as the recent Blue Valentine for the latest example. Rabbit Hole operates with an essentially linear nature, but like so much about the film, the relatively straight line of the story is rendered with an exceptional, elliptical grace.
We do eventually find out that the palpable absence in the home of Becca and Howie, that vacuum, is due to the death of their son, Danny, eight months earlier. He chased the family dog into the street and was hit by a car. The couple attends a grief support group in a local community center, where they initially chat with two regulars, Gaby (Sandra Oh) and Kevin. Becca and Sam are to some degree the inverse of the couple with whom they're speaking. Howie is obviously the only one of the pair interested in attending the group, while it is Gaby's husband who seems to suffer from grief fatigue, having put in eight years on the folding chairs. When Gaby begins an anecdote to put Becca more at ease, she says, "There was this woman in the group a couple of years ago - " Kevin cuts her off, "It was four. Four years ago."
Eight months after the death of their son, there is no indication that things are getting better for Becca and Howie. In fact, they seem to be getting worse. As Gaby says to Howie as they play skee-ball in an arcade one night (with their spouses avoiding the group, the two bond over a pre-meeting joint on one occasion; on this night they are playing hooky), after revealing that her husband left not only the group, but her as well, "Well...this is generally how it goes, right? It changes you. It literally changes people. Part of me thinks it was inevitable."
Fortunately, Rabbit Hole rarely follows the path of "generally how it goes." Even those few scenes which tend just a bit toward the stagy go in unpredictable directions. In those rare instances in which the contrivances of the story become a little too obvious - a basement conversation between Becca and her mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest) about whether the grief ever becomes easier to bear; one of several encounters between Becca and a local teenage boy, Jason (Miles Teller), from which the title of the film is derived - the dialog is natural and sharp, the performances are nearly faultless.
The scenes between Becca and Jason are some of the best in Rabbit Hole. Rebecca sees the young man in a school bus one afternoon and does a double take. She follows the bus until Jason is dropped off in front of his home. On another occasion, she follows him to the local library. She essentially stalks him, but it's not clear at first why. It's easy to believe that he simply bears a resemblance to her dead son, but the connection is in a way much deeper than that. The strange relationship seems therapeutic for both, a small, unlikely support group where they can talk about anything and find a willing listener who certainly shares in their pain. Rabbit Hole is not without its moments of humor. One occurs when Jason knocks on the window of Becca's SUV to wake her up one morning. She had pulled up near his house the previous evening only to see Jason heading off to his senior prom, after which Becca breaks down far more completely than she had to that point in the story. When Jason, still dressed in his tuxedo the next morning, awakens Becca, who had obviously fallen asleep, her first question is a predictable "what time is it?" But then instinct kicks in, "And you're just getting home?"
That prom night turns out to be something of a turning point for Becca and Howie, perhaps the longest in a series of long, dark nights of the soul since the death of their son. The dammed river of their relationship had out of necessity, separated to divergent streams, Becca with Jason, Howie with Gaby. But again, there is little predictable about these digressions, as is the case with the meandering fortunes of Becca and Howie. The story seems to set up the wife early on as the emotional heavy. It's Becca who banishes the family dog, Taz, to her mother's house. She's the one who begins to remove Danny's school art from the refrigerator and get rid of his clothes. Howie is inclined to watch video of their son on his smart phone late at night, he's the one who wants to seek the help of a support group and misses the dog. But as Rabbit Hole reveals over its economical 91 minutes, they're just two people responding to a loss in their own way.
Aaron Eckhart is about as solid as that strong chin of his, but he might actually be the weakest link in Rabbit Hole, which says a lot about the strength of this particular chain of performances. There's good work all around, particularly from Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh and Miles Teller. But it's Nicole Kidman that gives the film its unapologetic edge. She's been given her pass into the Oscar club and will be nominated most anytime she's a lead in the sort of films Academy members regard as substantial. There's no one in the best actress category that's better this year. None-the-less, I'm not sure many people realize just how good, how intelligent an actress she really is. Watch Rabbit Hole, but go back and watch The Hours and the little-seen Birth and Birthday Girl. In those films, as in Rabbit Hole, she not only melts into character but she brings that intelligence as an actress to bear in a relentless fashion.
Identity. Sex. Death. Those are some mighty heavy balls to be juggling, particularly that last, often leaden one. Such has been the subject matter of John Cameron Mitchell's first three features. Most of us quickly resort to cliche the closer we get to something profound. Relatively early in Rabbit Hole, when Becca and Sam attend the grief support group, they listen to another couple talking about the loss of their daughter. The man and woman essentially speak as one: "We just have to remind each other that it was just part of God’s plan. And we can’t know why. Only God can know why....God had to take her. He needed another angel....He needed another angel." The couple's sincerity is as obvious as their sentiment is painfully hackneyed and simple-minded. Becca, who has little tolerance for the "God talk," can't contain her scorn. "Why didn’t he just make one?....Another angel. I mean, he’s God after all. Why didn’t he just make another angel?"
One of the points which David Lindsay-Abaire's trenchant, unwavering script implicitly makes in that support group scene is that intelligent people are not reduced to stupidity by grief any more than simple people are rendered wise. What they all have in common is the harsh democracy of their respective losses.
Writer David Lindsay-Abaire and director John Cameron Mitchell do Beccca one better, matching her itelligence but gracefully going wherever the grief takes the husband and wife. It works on each in its own manner and its own time. Rabbit Hole is ultimately a life-affirming story not simply because Becca and Sam begin to find their way back to one another, or at least to their changed selves. It's life-affirming because it respects the intelligence of its characters as much as it does that of its audience.