I really liked John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Never saw Shortbus (though I’ll get around to it eventually), nonetheless, Rabbit Hole seemed like a departure before I saw it. Gone is the angry sexuality and grimy aesthetics. Instead there is grief and a formal, high-key mise-en-scene, where the camera is often stationary, and scenes are rather quiet.
Based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole tracks husband and wife Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) as they struggle to deal with the loss of their son, Danny. The film takes place over a short span, 8 months after Danny’s death. The child is never seen in the film, and the offending car accident is “witnessed” once, albeit only through reaction shots.
Stealing the show here is Miles Teller who plays Jason, the high-school senior who was driving the car that struck Danny. Teller plays Jason with an amazing amount of restraint. I’m very curious to read the play to get a better gauge of how the character is written originally. Whether it’s Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the screenplay) or director Mitchell or Teller himself – though I’m guessing it’s a combination of the three – there are some strong choices in here. Jason is a great example of how a character could drastically go in different directions, and how those choices can better a film. He sheds one lone tear, his face remains fairly monotone, the scars around his chin and cheek at times the lone remnants of the accident – sometimes acting as substitute for emotion. But it’s his calmness, his stoic nature, and his direct eye contact that reveal his pain. The more obvious choice, and one that a lesser actor may have taken, would have been pleading, flickering eyes, shaky body language and multiple tears. The confidence that Jason exudes seems at once true and false – he’s grown from the experience, but he’s hiding his vulnerability.
There are odd similarities with this year’s Another Earth, as both concentrate on suburban grief and redemption with a soft sci-fi background at play. In Rabbit Hole the sci-fi takes the form of a comic book that Jason is authoring. No stranger to unconventional art forms in his films (see the animated sequences in Hedwig), the comic book art for Rabbit Hole is exceptional – taking on the forms of multi-layered pipes that travel through space.
As interesting, is Mitchell/Lindsay-Abaire’s usage. We’re first introduced to the comics via a shot of a hand sketching clean lines on a page. We return to this shot throughout, with no hint at what is being drawn or who the artist is. I actually found myself looking at the fingernails to see whether it was Becca or Howie. Turns out it was neither. It’s a good strategy: Mitchell essentially manages to keep Jason (and thereby more of Danny) interspersed throughout the narrative without hammering us over the head with the accident itself. It’s suspenseful (ie what is this? Why is it important to the story?) and also thematically relevant: Jason is basically drawing a story that has a similar resonance to the entirety of the film we are viewing – he’s authoring what we are watching as we watch it.
Rabbit Hole feels so controlled. Perhaps it’s because, again, it’s such a departure from Mitchell’s previous, more maniacally paced work. But I think it’s also because of the steady beats taken by the actors. Kidman and Eckhart are both excellent and their instincts in this – a chamber-drama of sorts – are on fully display via the plentiful dialogue. Dianne Wiest shines in a painful quietness as Becca’s mother, Nat, and who doesn’t love a little Giancarlo Esposito (though he’s regrettably not in the film enough)?
It’s a film like this that makes me wonder how much work the director has to do with the actors. These vets – Kidman, Eckhart, Wiest – all appear in such control. They seem to have such a deep understanding of their characters and the emotions at play, that I can picture Mitchell standing by camera and hardly having to give them anything to work with. That’s not meant to be a dig on the director, as much as the fact that the film hits such a nicely cohesive note that the effort is well-hidden.