By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist December 17, 2010 at 7:22AM
This review originally ran during the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival.
For John Cameron Mitchell's third feature he's moved away from profiling the kinds of characters that populated "Hedwig & The Angry Inch" and "Shortbus" and instead delves into the domestic turmoil of an upper middle class family. Based on the play by David Lindsay-Abaire and adapted for the screen by the playwrite himself, "Rabbit Hole" explores the lasting wounds caused by the loss of a loved one and the unsteady road that must be taken to heal.
The story begins eight months after Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) have lost their son Danny. Over the course of the film's opening frames we piece together what their life is like now. Becca has recoiled into herself, plagued by the memories of their son that still fill their home, from the paintings on the fridge to the clothes and furniture in his bedroom. Howie seems trapped in the past, watching his favorite video of his son on his phone every night and even unable to remove the child seat from his car.
Attempts to attend group therapy are unsuccessful. While Howie is willing to give it a shot, Becca is put off by the God talk by some group members and perpetual state of grief many of the attendees seem to be in. As for her family, her mother (Dianne Wiest) who lost her own son tries to sympathize but always seems to say the wrong thing, while Becca's sister's (Tammy Blanchard) pregnancy causes mixed feelings as well.
But don't be fooled, "Rabbit Hole" is not just about the emotional rupture caused by the sudden passing of a child; it's also about the emotional, social and even sexual upheaval it causes. For Becca, we learn of her former big city career, and now that motherhood has been snatched cruelly away from her, she's unmoored in her own home. She bakes endlessly and keeps up the appearance of a good housewife though struggling to reorient her life. As for Howie, he desperately wants things to back go normal or at least feel some kind of connection to his wife again. But with sex off limits from the hurting Becca, any kind of physical intimacy becomes weighted by the tragic event that had shaped their lives.
The film will undoubtedly open doors for Mitchell. He shows himself capable of handling more mainstream, but certainly powerful fare with a very reserved and thoughtful approach that does the characters and story wonders. The camera takes a backseat and the emphasis is placed on acting and spare simple framing.
Of course, this wouldn't be possible if he didn't get two ace performances out of Kidman and Eckhart. While Kidman is in typically fine form, Eckhart is a standout, juggling quite a few different emotional markers for his character with tremendous insight. Yes, they both get big meaty scenes but thanks to Mitchell and the smart script by Lindsay-Abaire, these moments feel naturally encouraged rather than forcefully bookmarking each narrative milestone.
So mainly, make fun of Nicole Kidman all you want, the fact remains that she's a terrific actress and whenever coupled with a strong director (Lars Von Trier, Jonathan Glazer, Gus Van Sant), she does some stellar work and that certainly applies to Mitchell''s third, feature-length directorial effort. It's easily his most mature and understated piece of work. Mitchell's lens is staid, observational and he lets his actors do all the heavy emotional lifting and it works in spades. Kidman and the always-excellent Dianne Wiest have already been doing well on the pre-Oscar awards circuit are both capable of earning an Academy nom (though it's almost inconceivable that Mila Kunis earned a SAG “Black Swan” Best Supporting nod over Weist; presumably this will be rectified at Oscar time).
Truthfully, Aaron Eckhart is just as good, but as we predicted he's being overlooked. Another exemplary element of the film is Anton Sanko's beautiful score which we're hoping isn't ignored during the awards season either. The entire picture is an affecting and lasting piece of work.
If we have any complaints, it's perhaps that Howie doesn't get as detailed a backstory as Becca (he doesn't have a family?). But as the film circles round the close (and FYI, we haven't mentioned a couple major plot elements because they are probably best revealed within the context of the story) their journey, in many ways, is only still beginning. Honest and powerful, "Rabbit Hole" reveals that the hardest thing about death, is learning to live with it. [B+]