Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.
“Rabbit Hole” feels more like the adaptation of a really great play that hasn’t been botched as opposed to it feeling like a really great movie, but that isn’t to take away from what John Cameron Mitchell has achieved with his take on David Lindsay-Abaire’s drama about a couple dealing with the fallout of the death of their young child.
Adapted for the screen by Lindsay-Abaire himself, the film stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie Corbett, eight months removed from the day their son Danny ran out into the street after the family’s dog and was hit by a passing car. Both have their different ways of grieving: Howie insists on going to group therapy where he befriends a fellow parent (Sandra Oh) while Becca finds her own unexpected way of coming to terms with the accident, suffocated by the ones closest to her, including her mother (Dianne Wiest) and her ne’er do well sister (Tammy Blanchard), who recently became pregnant.
Lindsay-Abaire won a Pulitzer for being delicate without being precious in depicting the pain and heartache of the Corbetts and it’s a remarkable showcase for actors, if done right. Kidman, whose finest hours have come when playing prickly protagonists, is particularly great as the passive-aggressive Becca, who has no idea where to place her anger, resulting in unpredictable outbursts at the slightest offenses. Eckhart’s Howie, meanwhile, is less moved to be the one who catches her when she falls, starting to drift away as he becomes uncertain about what his wife Becca actually wants.
Though it’s that uncertainty that drives the film — how a couple that once felt most intimate with each other suddenly feels disconnected — Mitchell has no such uncertainty as a director, providing a steady hand and an unadorned style to the proceedings. Of course, this is a departure from Mitchell’s previous films “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus,” and if anything, he provokes here by stepping back, allowing Kidman and Eckhart to go uncomfortable places; in one particularly noteworthy scene, a squabble between Becca and Howie that is often a hallmark of the third act of dramas such as these arrives mid-film and is shot nakedly by cinematographer Frank DeMarco, dropping conventional composition, as if to let the scene pass by without comment.
Somehow, Mitchell retains the raw energy of a stage performance without ever descending into a film that is always reminding its audience it began life as a play. (Some credit is likely due to the fact Mitchell apparently spent a year editing “Rabbit Hole.”) It doesn’t hinge on a revenge plot a la “In the Bedroom” or fall into the trap of turning into a shouting match between angry spouses, instead acknowledging the mystery of sorrow and letting Kidman and Eckhart play all its nuances as the process of letting go becomes a burden as great as losing a child in the first place. As a result, the drama may be less pronounced, but the emotions are no less complex, creating a film that’s quietly devastating and elegant in its understatement.
“Rabbit Hole” was picked up by Lionsgate, who will distribute later this year. It will play once more in Toronto on September 18th.