After successfully adapting his off-Broadway play into his debut feature film Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell went quiet for a few years. As the writer/director/star of the cult hit, following up the musical film was always going to be challenging, so instead he chose to challenge audiences with his 2006 effort Shortbus. Labelled by some as “pornographic”, due to the way (as Mitchell puts it) the film is used to “employ sex in new cinematic ways”. Another four years passed between feature film projects, although the artist kept busy on a number of music video, acting and television gigs. For his latest project, Mitchell has chosen the intimate politics of domesticity in the wake of a tragedy with Rabbit Hole, adapting David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name.
Becca (Nicole Kidman, Nine) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart, Love Happens) are still recovering from the death of their young son, attending regular group support sessions to deal with their grief. As Becca loses interest in the group, jaded by the hypocrisy of the attendees, Howie begins to connect with fellow group member Gabby (Sandra Oh, Defendor). Becca feels disconnected from her mother (Dianne Wiest, Synecdoche, New York) and sister (Tammy Blanchard, Deadline), but begins to find consolation in a relationship with Jason (newcomer Miles Teller), the teenage driver who accidentally killed her son.
Despite its stage origins, Rabbit Hole never feels ‘stagey’ or confined by the conventional four walls. Regardless, it is the performances at the heart of the film that are worth tuning in for, and in particular Nicole Kidman. Liberated from the Botox that appears to have been paralysing her emotional range of late, Kidman infuses Becca with an astonishing amount of underlying pain that she fiercely guards throughout much of the film. When she does let her passive aggressive guard down, or more accurately forgets to protect herself from the memories for a moment, a torrent of emotion comes pouring out on-screen. It is as devastating to watch as it is a release. This powerful performance may recall her turn in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, another role that saw her dealing with the death of her husband in a most unusual way, and she certainly earns the Oscar nomination and other accolades she has been awarded this season. Eckhart’s less-obvious performance has been largely overlooked by the various awards bodies, but his own acting – especially when he is interacting with Kidman – is a near-perfect portrayal of a relationship disintegrating.
Despite difficult subject matter, the film doesn’t entirely wallow in the depths of melancholy. Almost the antithesis of the reminiscent Revolutionary Road, there are surprising amounts of humour peppered throughout. Scenes in which Eckhart and Oh smoke pot before going to a group session are as hilarious as they are uncomfortable, and provides a much-needed break from the sometimes weighty tone of the subject. When the heavier screaming and crying matches come, and boy do they come, they are all the more powerful – and real – as a result of these moments of levity. Beautifully shot and edited, Rabbit Hole is not so much a film one watches and one that you live through, sharing the highs and lows with a handful of characters that Lindsay-Abaire’s well-paced script gives us time to get to know. For anybody who has ever suffered such an emotional loss, or is close to someone who has, this film may just also provide a little bit of therapy and a light at the end of a long dark tunnel.
The Reel Bits: A powerful and emotionally engaging musing on the impact of loss on the individual, the relationship and those around them. Superbly acted and paced, it is a cut above every movie-of-the-week tear-jerker that has every dealt with the tragic subject.
Rabbit Hole is released on February 17, 2011 in Australia by Roadshow Entertainment.