As Rabbit Hole was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival yesterday, many reviews are pouring out! I know some people like to avoid reviews etc. before they see the movie, so I’m going to post a batch of reviews under the cut, so you can click ‘Read the rest of this entry »’ if you choose! These reviews are irresistibly good though
Bottom Line: Deep-dish drama, not without its rewards, but a little too self-conscious for its own good.
TORONTO — John Cameron Mitchell takes a break from shepherding his sexually charged writing to the screen to direct David Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning play, “Rabbit Hole,” an intense, intimate story of a couple reeling from the loss of their young son.
This extreme change of pace allows Mitchell to burrow deeply into a more grounded kind of drama than is his forte. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart deliver performances that are like raw wounds, where nothing either one can say or do will blot out relentless memories and pain.
“Rabbit Hole” will win its share of accolades, but will it win audiences? The small screen better accommodates this kind of concentrated tragedy; in a cinema, the story becomes like those support-group sessions the couple attends: The film does achieve moments of catharsis, but it can be heavy going.
The story begins eight months after a traffic accident kills Becca (Kidman) and Howie’s (Eckhart) boy. The more the couple plays “normal,” the more the effort fails. Becca tries to eradicate all signs of her son, while Howie reaches out to family and friends.
The group sessions barely help. Too much talk of God for Becca, and though he won’t admit it, wallowing in grief isn’t doing Howie any good, either.
The story pulls in other characters — Becca’s mother (Dianne Wiest), who also lost a son, and a sister (Tammy Blanchard), whose pregnancy seems like a rebuke to Becca.
Finally, Becca reaches out and to the most surprising person. She happens to see and then makes contact with the high school student (Miles Teller) whose car struck her son. The two discover they share a common grief over the accident. The youth is developing a comic book that deals with parallel universes, of other places where a sad person might be happy and a little boy might not lose his life.
Meanwhile, Howie has his own secret sharer, a woman (Sandra Oh) from group, who has become something of a long-term griever. You realize this couple is gradually coming apart by creating separate lives.
Lindsay-Abaire knows his way around such grief, what things feel like and how best intentions go very wrong. His writing carefully pinpoints the moment where bottled-up rage will explode or the smallest incident can trigger a complete loss of control.
However, “Rabbit Hole” traps its audience inside this prison of guilt and recrimination. The drama has its own relentlessness. Every scene is about the couple’s tragedy. Lines of dialogue inevitably have double meanings. Not even a dog gets walked without this being about the lost child.
In this way, the writing is too self-aware. The film cries out for moments that are not about the couple’s search for re-engagement. Can’t a man simply walk a dog?
Kidman grabs the central focus of the story as the more distraught of the two. The performance is riveting because she essentially plays the entire film at two levels, the surface everyday life and then what is turning over and over again in her mind.
Eckhart’s outgoing husband, who isn’t afraid to admit to his pain, nicely balances the tightly wound wife. He’s open to whatever works — but nothing does. So frustration compounds his anguish.
Wiest’s mother is one that never loses patience with her daughter because she of all people understands. Teller gives a steady, somber performance as a young man still in a state of shock, whose whole life has gone off-kilter in a single moment.
Mitchell’s crew does solid work in rendering an almost-too-perfect bedroom community outside New York. Then again, this is all part of the film’s self-awareness: No matter how safe and comfy your surroundings, the film insists, everything in an instant can disappear down a rabbit hole.
It’s an unusual year with lots of first class lead performances from women, including Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Natalie Portman, Diane Lane, Tilda Swinton, Lesley Manville, Michelle Williams, Noomi Rapace, Sally Hawkins, Jennifer Lawrence, and Anne Hathaway. I think there is none better than Nicole Kidman making a major artistic comeback after a string of disappointments that include Australia, Nine, Margot At The Wedding, The Invasion, Fur, and Human Stain. She turns in a brilliant performance in Rabbit Hole, which had its gala world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Monday night. (I saw it at a private screening in L.A. a few weeks ago.) As a mother dealing with the sudden death of her 4-year-old son, Kidman gets it all heartbreakingly right. She is matched by costars Aaron Eckhart as her husband and Dianne Wiest as her mother. This is easily her best work since winning an Oscar for 2002’s The Hours, and probably her most assured screen work, even though I confess to being a major To Die For groupie.
One thing the actress has always done is take creative leaps with scripts that aren’t obviously commercial (Dogville, anyone?). Based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play, the role Kidman plays won a Best Actress Tony for Cynthia Nixon. The film version, written by Lindsay-Abaire and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is up for grabs at Toronto. Reps for the film tell me they not only hope to land a deal but want to get the film out in time for this year’s awards race. Problem is, the small character-driven film might be perceived as a real downer. Parents-grieving-over-dead-kid flicks don’t exactly get them lined up at the multiplex, so stellar reviews and awards attention are crucial. Should it find a distributor this week and get an end-of-year berth, past winners Kidman and Wiest both become bonafide Oscar contenders again. Particularly since it’s the actors branch doing the voting, and this kind of material is a thespian dream. I’m reminded of a couple of years ago when The Wrestler made a deal with Fox Searchlight hot off its success in Venice and Toronto. It became a major awards player by December. A savvy distrib would need to coordinate all this in a hurry for Rabbit Hole, and Fox Searchlight, Focus Features, Weinstein Co, all seem to have their dance cards full with lots of other Best Actress candidates already. Tough business, this Oscar thing.
Grief may be the topic under examination, but humor — incisive, observant and warm — is the tool with which it’s dissected in “Rabbit Hole,” a refreshingly positive-minded take on cinema’s ultimate downer: overcoming the death of a child. Adroitly expanded from the legit hit by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire (its original, Pulitzer-winning author) and director John Cameron Mitchell, “Rabbit Hole” fittingly offers a parallel-universe variation on what Broadway auds saw, with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart delivering expert, understated performances as the pic’s central couple. A savvy distrib should have no trouble steering this quality drama through a healthy kudo season release.
Eight months have passed since the accidental death of the Corbetts’ 4-year-old son, Danny, and the New York couple, Howie (Eckhart) and Becca (Kidman), still feel their lives dominated by the loss. Even the pic’s opening gesture, a metaphorical sign of regrowth that finds Becca laboring in her garden, is set back when a well-meaning neighbor tramples one of her freshly planted seedlings — no matter how hard she tries, the healing is hard. Each has a different way of coping: Howie holds on to all that reminds him of Danny, while Becca wants to sell the house and move on.
This is familiar territory, movingly explored countless times before, though “Rabbit Hole” is refreshingly light on the loss itself. With the exception of one unnecessary, agonizing flashback late in the film, everything takes place in the healing space of the present. But instead of moving on as they should, Howie and Becca seem to be shutting down certain parts of themselves (they haven’t had sex since the accident, for example, and Danny’s dog has been sent into exile with Becca’s mother, played by Dianne Wiest). Just as the birth of a child can strengthen certain unstable relationships, a death threatens to permanently come between even the best-matched couple.
With the larger canvas of the screen at his disposal, Lindsay-Abaire deepens several key relationships. An offhand mention of the God-freaks in group therapy becomes a full-blown subplot, as Becca rejects the collective sharing sessions, where participants appear to be competing for some sort of saddest-story prize. (Empathy, as whenever her mother evokes the death of a junkie uncle, inevitably sets Becca on edge.) While Howie continues going to therapy alone, bonding with “professional wallower” Gaby (Sandra Oh, in an effective role created for the film), Becca reaches out to a teenage boy (Miles Teller) whose facial scars seem to explain what the character doesn’t at first.
While Lindsay-Abaire endeavors to open up the action, director Mitchell uses the screen to make the material more intimate, privileging auds with closeups vital to our understanding of the characters. At first, “Rabbit Hole” may seem a radical departure from his more scandalous earlier work (gender-bending rock opera “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and explicit sex drama “Shortbus”); where those films felt transgressive, “Rabbit Hole” is polite, the production itself as neatly manicured as the Corbetts’ Pottery Barn-perfect lives. On closer inspection, what all three projects share is the helmer’s insistence on raw, unsimulated emotion.
In Kidman’s case, it’s nice to see the actress’ lately immovable forehead participating in her performance, with subtle, almost imperceptible fluctuations in her carefully guarded facade allowing us to follow as Becca tumbles down the rabbit hole of her own emotions. Eckhart gets a couple of big shouting scenes, but the actor manages to convey just as much in Howie’s quietly injured moments. A new scene, in which Howie awkwardly attempts to show prospective homebuyers Danny’s room, perfectly balances melancholy and humor, while seemingly mundane details — struggling to use an iPhone, checking on a cake in the backseat — ground the characters in reality.
“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be,” Lindsay-Abaire advised potential theater directors in the author’s note to his play. Mitchell, whose own career began onstage, respects the writer’s wishes, and with the exception of the aforementioned flashback, he shrewdly keeps the mood tipped toward the positive. Anton Sanko’s Arvo Part-esque score, all introspective pianos and strings, encourages us to feel without forcing a reaction, while fleeting progression shots of a comicbook in progress enrich the payoff of the play’s self-defining scene.
Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Rabbit Hole bears its theatrical roots in mostly good ways– the highly literary writing, the emotionally fraught scenes stacked up on top of each other, the small cast of characters. Director John Cameron Mitchell, making a major change of pace from the likes of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, opens the story up to the screen without ever overdoing it, emphasizing the oppressive architecture of a lonely house or the power of a silent moment. Most importantly, he leaves room for his stupendous actors to take over, and if Rabbit Hole feels a little more neat and contained than a movie ought to be, the performances almost entirely make up for it.
Leading the charge is Nicole Kidman, portraying a grieving mom with the kind of restraint we’re accustomed to seeing from her, but with an acerbic bite and sarcasm that makes her character Becca less of a tragic martyr than, well, a real human. Becca lost her 4-year-old son Danny in a car accident 8 months earlier, and Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) have moved on only in the sense that they’re pretending to the world that they’re OK. Howie tries to find solace in a support group, which Becca finds too sentimental and religious, reaching out instead to the teenage driver (Miles Teller) who killed Danny, and both return home to their sprawling suburban New York home not to ignore each other, exactly, but persistently skirt around the looming figure of their dead son.
While any number of important things happen to Becca and Howie during Rabbit Hole, including Becca’s sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) getting pregnant and their decision to sell their house, the movie is much more about the aftermath of the life-changing event, revealing these characters and their pain in small moments and decisions. There’s a lot less screaming and crying here than you’re expecting, and even a little humor as these two learn daily how to move on; instead of wallowing together, Becca and Howie are bumping up against the rest of the world alone, a terrible decision for their relationship but a far more interesting one to watch.
Not everything in Rabbit Hole avoids cliche– the one screaming and crying scene between Becca and Howie feels a little forced, and Howie’s budding friendship with a fellow support group member (Sandra Oh) isn’t sketched out enough to provide more than rote “will they or won’t they?” tension. And while Lindsay-Abaire’s writing can put too fine a point on things in some scenes, it frequently takes your breath away with its insight; playing Becca’s mother, Dianne Wiest delivers a monologue about grief that is all the more stunning for how simply and succinctly she presents it.
Much like fellow Broadway adaptation Doubt before it, Rabbit Hole will be treated more as an actor’s showcase when it inevitably enters the Oscar race either this year or next, though Cameron Mitchell’s restrained, elegant work is impressive precisely for how little you notice it. Kidman is the true standout here, outmatching Eckhart scene-by-scene to the point that it’s almost a problem, but Wiest is also terrific in her quiet but key role. Though Rabbit Hole is in some way yet another story about grieving rich white people (and not as good as, say, In the Bedroom), it’s a pretty exceptional example of the form, and if nothing else an opportunity for actors we love to get out there and impress us again.