'Rabbit Hole' (UK Release: 4 Feb '11)
Director: Jonathan Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne West, Miles Turner
If you were at the 5pm screening of 'Rabbit Hole' in Islington on Sunday 6th February 2011, you may have heard me gasp several times, mumble "oh no", and then start, openly, to cry. If you weren't - please accept that as partial explanation of why this review goes a little over the top. Frankly, I found the film so painful to watch, and so moving, that I've spent quite a long time since I saw it trying to figure out how it worked and what it did to me.
I believe other reviews are available which express delight that Nicole Kidman has regained the use of her face and tip her heavily to win the Grand-High-Crying-Jesus-Figurine-for-most-miserabilist-lady-in-film; Peter Bradshaw did one for The Guardian which showed, delightfully, that he hadn't seen the film. So you can always read those, if this gets too much.
The question of what is too much, what feelings can't be tolerated, how much a drama should expect an audience to put up with and what feelings we should be left with are very much the point of this film. As I see it, there are two main strands at work here. The first strand comes mainly from the script, and it's about inappropriate feelings around loss. Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, play Becca and Howard, a married couple who have lost their four-year old son. He ran out of their house after their dog. One of them, they're no longer sure which, left the gate open, and he was hit by a car, and killed.
Becca and Howie's loss isn't numbing, it's weightless. Now they go to group therapy, where they get to hear devoutly religious people talk about God's plan and the extra angel of their dead child, or about “rage day” - the day of the week when members of the group are allowed to express and own their fury. None of which works too well for either Becca or Howie - Becca shouts at the religious people and Howie winds up smoking pot and giggling at “rage day” and then hanging out in amusement arcades with Gabby (Sandra Oh).
In the meantime, Becca very carefully and obsessively follows Jason, a guilt-ridden kid of seventeen (Miles Teller). Because the book he leaves behind at the library is about parallel worlds, I thought this was going to be a fantastical dramatisation-come-cop out where Jason turns out to be her lost child from another universe. He isn't. Peter Bradshaw thought the relationship between Becca and Jason was a sub-'American Beauty' infatuation – which was how I knew that he hadn't seen the film. The scenes between Becca and Jason are set in in a calm park and are sad quiet marvels, where she says gentle and maternal things to him and he does his best.
This strand of the film is pretty good, as a tragicomedy of manners. Dianne West is astonishing, as Becca's mother who keeps wanting to make comparisons between the death of her son and Becca's loss – and, in one delirious scene in a bowling alley, with the Kennedy dynasty. She's religious too and gets to deliver a monologue which probably clinched the Pulitzer prize back when 'Rabbit Hole' was a play.
Emotional inappropriateness has a comic dimension, too - Becca tries to give her son's clothes away to her pregnant sister who looks at her like she's a bad poison-needle wielding fairy; Howie gives perhaps the worst real-estate presentation to a young couple who come to their open house. Eckhart's face contorts in innocent bewilderment after he's shouted at Jason and Becca calls him an asshole, and he mouths "I'm an asshole", without yet knowing what that means.
But it's the other strand which transforms 'Rabbit Hole', the side which comes from its director, Jonathan Cameron Mitchell. The direction of 'Rabbit Hole' repeatedly denies us the fatalistic satisfaction of things turning out the way we expect them to. Scenes are shot in the style of a melodrama or action movie, but are drained, underplayed, allowed to tail off. You expect closure to come but it doesn't.
For the first few minutes, this means that the scenes seem to lack any momentum at all. By the end, it means our two leads are being filmed driving exactly as though they're going to crash into each other all the signifiers, fidgeting, distraction, fumbling with mobile phones and such-like present and correct – and right up at the end as Howie races around the house and fails to find Becca, it is filmed as though this is a horror film and he's about to find her corpse. Because in films we don't generally follow a person blundering around for so long and so intensely, with such panic, unless there is something devastating but definite at the end of it.
'Rabbit Hole' is a film about the turbulence of grief, how shameful and embarrassing loss can be. It refuses obvious kinds of catharsis in favour of extravagant humour and wild sadness. As the film goes on the mad wealth of the world – kindness, anger, love, protectiveness, and silliness; books of strange ideas barbecue parties and toys that talk – all come back to the characters, and they don't know what they should make of what hasn't disappeared.
The refusal to repress the bright and generous feelings, to let grief be led or flattening lends the film as it goes on a bemused kind of grace. And, for this bawling viewer at least, it is what makes 'Rabbit Hole' the painful masterpiece which it so clearly is.
'Rabbit Hole' is on wide release throughout UK cinemas now.