Rabbit Hole

cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh, and Giancarlo Esposito

director: John Cameron Mitchell

87 minutes (12) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2
[released 20 June]

RATING: 6/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Rabbit Hole

Based upon a Pulitzer prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also wrote the screenplay) John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole is an adroit study of a couple trying to navigate their way through a labyrinth of guilt and grief created by the untimely death of their son. A film chock-full of beautifully observed moments and subtle emotional shifts, Rabbit Hole never quite manages to evade its deeply generic nature.

The film begins with an upper-middle class American couple. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) Corbett are attractive, rich and they live surrounded by kindly neighbours and loving family members. However, something is quite clearly wrong. In the first of many subtle and well-observed moments, Becca is asked by her neighbour whether she and Howie would like to come over for a cook out. The exchange is pleasant enough as Becca politely turns her neighbour down but suddenly the tone shifts as the camera reveals that the neighbour is treading on Becca’s flowerbed.

Instantly, Becca bristles and the neighbour rapidly retreats to the other side of the fence. Clearly, something is wrong to force Becca into such a hostile over-reaction. As Howie and Becca interact with colleagues and family-members, the root of the problem rapidly becomes clear. It is clear not because someone directly addresses the problem, but because people are desperately trying to tiptoe around something and the more tiptoeing they do, the more the problem becomes obvious: Becca and Howie are still trying to get over the death of their son who, aged four, chased his dog into the road and into the path of an oncoming car.

Wisely, Mitchell never bothers to show us a flashback to happier times or even grace us with an image of the dead boy. Becca and Howie’s son is a tangible absence in their lives and what makes that absence so conspicuous is the fact that he is nowhere to be seen despite being absolutely central to their lives.

This problem established; Rabbit Hole moves on to exploring the different ways in which grief manifests itself in the lives of the couple and other couples like them. These little moments are arguably where the film is at its strongest. Consider, for example, the moment when Howie and Becca attend group therapy and talk with another couple. Every time the woman mentions when some event took place, her husband steps in and corrects her on the dates: no, it wasn’t a couple of weeks ago, it was six months ago. No it wasn’t two years ago, it was four years ago.

Eventually, it emerges that this couple’s child died all of eight years ago and the man is deeply resentful of his wife’s desire to continue living in the past. This encounter forms the basis for the entire film: grief is not only a powerful force but also a pervasive one that can manifest itself in any number of perverse and unfortunate ways. As Howie and Becca struggle to move on with their lives, they cannot help but be confronted again and again by the irrational and ubiquitous nature of their grief, a grief that taints everything and everyone.

Rabbit Hole is a film about both the necessity and the impossibility of communication. Howie and Becca’s attempts to find a way out of their grief are hamstrung by the fact that their grotesquely inflated sensitivity makes it impossible for them to hear the advice that other people are giving them. When Becca’s mother attempts to draw on her experience in losing a grown son, Becca acts offended. When Howie discovers that Becca has started talking to the high school student whose car killed their child, he reacts with irrational rage despite the fact that he not only has been seeking solace elsewhere himself, but also understands the fact that forgiving the teenager for his involvement in the accident is a vital part of the healing process. Much like their son, communication is conspicuously absent from every corner of Howie and Becca’s lives.

It is easy to see why Rabbit Hole won a Pulitzer prize. Lindsay-Abaire’s eye for the details of human behaviour and the complex ways in which deep internal pain can manifest themselves is genuinely impressive, and seeing the play performed on a stage would make for an incredibly intense experience as your eyes and brain are drawn repeatedly to the minute details of the actors’ performances. However, removed from a theatrical context, and placed on a big screen, Rabbit Hole finds its emotional immediacy replaced with a sense of crushing over-familiarity.

Indeed, from its muted colour scheme to its extended silences and its very traditional cinematography, Rabbit Hole looks like pretty much every other middle-brow American drama to have appeared in the last five years. Lacking the sort of cohesive plot-arc that delivers genuinely psychological insight into the grieving process, Rabbit Hole plays very much like an extended actor’s workshop in which Kidman and Eckhart are called upon to portray a ghoulish cavalcade of grief-based vignettes: marvel at Eckhart doing grief and anger! Sigh as Kidman renders grief and resentment! Watch as Eckhart and Kidman return again and again to the bottomless font of misplaced anger and pseudo-Freudian projection.

Given the structure of the film, Kidman’s Oscar nomination was nothing short of par for the course, as Rabbit Hole is a film that is part of an emerging genre known as ‘Oscar bait’. Much like the blockbuster, the Oscar bait is a genre whose boundaries exist not at the level of plot or character but at the level of structure. Just as blockbusters draw upon the tropes of other genres in order to deliver sensory spectacle, the Oscar-bait film draws upon various types of story in order to deliver one or more ‘great performances’.

Films such as Stephen Daldry’s The Reader (2008), John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008), Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005), and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) tell very different stories about very different characters, and explore very different sets of issues, but they also share certain clear similarities. For example, while all of these films touch upon quite substantial themes and ideas such as religious doubt, the role of the monarchy, involvement in the Holocaust, and the media’s enabling relationship with criminals, none of the films really have anything to say about any of these topics.

Indeed, while Rabbit Hole is about a couple experiencing grief over the loss of a child, Lindsay-Abaire’s script does not contain anything that is new or surprising. In fact, the plot of Rabbit Hole could be summarised as ‘unhappy people are unhappy’. However, while Rabbit Hole does not genuinely engage with human grief in any meaningful way, the fact that it alludes to these sorts of issues is sufficient for critics and audiences alike to consider it a ‘serious film’ that is worth a) going to see, and b) taking seriously. Having convinced us to take them seriously, Oscar baits then immerse us in a world full of acting-based set pieces.

The critic Paul Bleton describes what he calls genre ‘paraliterature’ as being like a string of pearls. According to this view, genre works are collections of set pieces held together by flimsy pieces of string and the nature of the set piece define what genre you are dealing with. For example, if the work is built around scary bits then it is a work of horror and if it is built around sense of wonder (or cognitive estrangement) then chances are that you are dealing with a work of science fiction.

Blockbusters are works that are built around set pieces designed to be spectacular and Oscar bait films are built around set pieces in which actors wildly over-emote. Add to this a muted colour scheme, a respected actor, and some ‘serious’ subject matter and you have a formula for commercial and critical success no less predictable, generic and stultifying that the formulae behind the most cynical of Hollywood action films.

As the above mark out of ten suggests, Rabbit Hole is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination… Mitchell’s direction is perfectly reasonable and the performances are all entertaining thanks to a script that captures many of the neater subtleties of human behaviour. However, while I did not hate Rabbit Hole, I cannot say that I particularly liked it or that I thought that it was particularly well made. There is something that is actually quite distasteful and dishonest about dealing with such ‘serious’ issues in such a generic and narcissistic manner.

Rabbit Hole’s DVD comes with no discernable extras. Boo.