There will be a number of people with no interest whatsoever in seeing “Rabbit Hole,” John Cameron Mitchell‘s film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer prize-winning stage play. They will hear the plot — a married couple, Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman), cope with the loss of their only son in a tragic accident — and wave “Rabbit Hole” off as a downer, a bummer, a high-gloss exercise in empty Oscar-season theatrics intended For Your Consideration. And those people will be wrong. Yes, “Rabbit Hole” is a discussion of grief, and its shadow twin, healing. Yes, it features superb acting from the leads that will be talked about at Oscar time. But it also has a sense of humor, and of grace, and it never takes easy or simple outs, and it has an excellent supporting cast, and it marks Mitchell’s step to the next level of American directors. It is, in brief, exactly the kind of movie the American cinema often promises us and so very rarely delivers.
Becca and Howie have a beautiful and empty home. They talk about their loss, and there are things they do not talk about, and they each are coping in different ways and not coping in different ways. Neither of them is as good, or as bad, as they seem. Eckhart’s all-American charm and brawn cracks and crumbles. Kidman’s arch demeanor has rarely been used to better effect as when she dismisses a support group member’s statement that they must have lost their child because God needed another angel: “Why didn’t he just make one? He’s God, after all. Why didn’t he just make another angel?”
The staccato rhythms owe a debt to David Mamet, but there’s also something fine and sensitive in every word and every scene, and Kidman and Eckhart make it come alive. In a lesser drama, one of the two of them would be wrong; instead, we watch as they each work through impossible depths of despair at different rates, in different ways, like people do instead of like characters would. There are great moments from the supporting cast – including Dianne Weist, Sandra Oh and Giancarlo Esposito — but the real standout is Miles Teller. Saying too much would force open moments and moods the film gently unfolds, but Teller is given a burden — as an actor, as a character — and he carries it in a way that makes you aware of how heavy it is, and how it will never lift.
Why would you go see “Rabbit Hole?” Perhaps because you have never had such a loss in your life, and to see it shown and stated in such human terms is instructive. Or perhaps because you have had such a loss in your life, and to brush against the image of things only you can know is instructive and less painful, like using a pinhole camera to view an eclipse. Or simply because it is a film about people, people like us, living imperfect lives and arguing about if Al Green is a deliberate seduction technique or just some nice music to play when you haven’t had sex in eight months.
Adapting plays for the screen is a challenge. Open them up too much cinematically, and they get lost in trickery and tilted camera. Fail to bring the techniques of cinema to the table and you have a theater piece without the power of the presence of the actors in the same room. Mitchell does a superb job of bringing “Rabbit Hole” from the stage to the screen, with moments both large (Eckhart and Oh getting blazed in their car in the parking lot before group therapy) and small (the careful precision of Teller’s art as it says things he can’t).
Mitchell’s prior films, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Shortbus” were incendiary extravaganzas of sex and splendor. With “Rabbit Hole,” his flame is focused until it is almost invisible, so it might better cut and cauterize as we peel back words and moments to reveal the wounds beneath. And when everything comes down to Kidman and Eckhart in the same room but in different places, suffering the same loss in wildly different ways, the movies aches and thrums with the pain of being alive and soars with the possibility of being happy. “Rabbit Hole” looks like another American indie film of ugly feelings and beautiful furniture, big acting and small paychecks. It isn’t; it’s one of the best, most human, most true films of the year.