Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
On November 16, 2010 I did a Q and A with David Lindsay-Abaire, Nicole Kidman, John Cameron Mitchell, and Aaron Eckhart following the NBR screening of Rabbit Hole. It was a treat to have producers, actors, the director and the writer in the same room. Kidman’s commitment to the film was evident as she discussed her creative relationship with the process of putting together the film and the great degree of freedom granted to Lindsay-Abaire in adapting his own play to the screen.
Rabbit Hole is a loving adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name. Although the film, based on it’s theme, will probably not become an adored holiday classic the journey from play to screen has been unusual in it’s fidelity to the original source and quite successful in terms of storytelling and performance. One of the first and most unusual aspects of the project is that the playwright was hired to adapt his original work, without a co-writer, to the screen. Producer Nicole Kidman and director John Cameron Mitchell, both with experience in theater, felt so strongly about the play that they were comfortable handing the screenplay to Abaire. The result is a film that reflects the original work–a young couple lose their son in an accident that remains mysterious to the viewers and to themselves–but is adapted in ways that subtly and effectively fit the needs of cinema.
When Abaire “opens up” the play he starts with people or events that are only mentioned in the original text. There is a family next door, for instance, who have invited Becca and her husband Howie (Nicloe Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), to dinner many times. The play opens with an interior scene between Becca and her sister Izzy that is both funny and serious, setting the tone of sisterly differences that will play out for the rest of the plot. But the scene is shifted to later in the film, which opens outdoors–cutting from harbor shots to large green upstate lawns and finally introducing Becca working in her backyard garden. As played by Kidman, Becca’s labor over the mixing of soil and planting of flowers in the bed of earth is lonely work–but she seems happy in her solitude. Interrupted by the sudden appearance of Peg, her neighbor, the fragile serenity disappears. Peg wants to invite Becca and her husband to a party that evening–but Becca makes it clear they “have plans”. When Peg awkwardly steps on some of the newly planted flowers Becca is clearly annoyed. We get, though subtle bits of acting and camera work, that Becca is not interested in a social relationship with her neighbors–or maybe anybody.
Inside the nice two story house we meet Becca’s husband Howie, who Eckhart plays as caring but confused. He would like them to get out into the world–but understands the danger of pushing it. There are other adaptations that help to move the play into the cinema–instead of watching his dead son on a vhs player Howie catches secret glimpses of Danny on his iPhone. And later in the film, when Becca meets Jason, a boy who in some way was involved with the death of her son, she learns that he is making a graphic novel, a clear and cinematic upgrade from the short story that he was writing in the play. One Abaire’s most successful decisions is to bring the viewers out of the home and into the community center where Becca and Howie attend grief counseling. It is there that we meet Gaby (Sandra Oh), who will eventually offer an attractive alternative to Becca’s grief and make Howie ultimately choose between happiness and commitment.
The best part of Rabbit Hole is the way that a world-class dramatic script is crafted by the subtle and realistic performances of the main characters. Kidman and Eckhart play a couple who share a deep and common grief but must process it in ways that challenge their faith in each other. Becca needs to get things behind her, she seems to believe that holding on–whether to clothing or images or maybe even memories–will only make her pain worse. Impulsively she packs up Danny’s baby clothes and brings them to her sister Izzy, who has just announced her pregnancy. She is so focused on wanting this to be the right gesture in terms of her own needs that her sister’s reticence (they do not even know if the baby is a girl or boy yet) takes here completely by surprise. Unlike his wife, Howie seems to be hanging on by clinging to a completely different mechanism–he relives the past by keeping his son’s memories around him–leaving a drawing on the refrigerator door, trying to talk it out at grief counseling, and privately watching video of his son on his iPhone. The tragic effect of much of the film is that two people are suffering together–but must do it in ways that keep each of them from comforting the other.
Mitchell has directed the film in a way that seems to bring the best out of the actors–Kidman and Eckhart create a brittle and savage series of performances that add up to a hopeful sadness. Working in digital video and allowing flexibility of movement throughout with the use of hand held cameras, Kidman and Eckhart give a realistic portrayal of the way stress and heartache changes people. And there are no easy answers. One morning Becca hears her husband screaming from the other room–he has just discovered that Danny’s movie–which has not been backed up anywhere else–has disappeared from his iPhone. Did she delete the movie? He saw her fidgeting with the phone earlier–as did we. But she’s says she didn’t do it–maybe it was all a mistake. Is it just Howie’s paranoia? The film shows that losing faith takes place over time. Rabbit Hole explores this loss–in life, in happiness, in relationships–in a way that feels realistic because it is not a one-sided spiral. Every person in the film–the parents, the sister, Becca’s mother, the boy most responsible for Danny’s death–is confronting the loss of happiness and the crushing burden of responsibility.
The turning point in the spiral of sadness occurs with the introduction of outsiders into the couple’s carefully closed lives. One day Becca sees a school bus pass and a casual glance reveals a boy who immediately consumes her attention. It’s such a transforming moment that she begins to literally stalk the boy as he leaves school and is finally left off in front of his large suburban home. Meanwhile, alone at the group counseling, Howie has a chance encounter with Gaby, who’s husband has left her. Howie seems to realize that he can be happy again and that socializing with others is something he has missed. These dual relationships –Becca with Jason and Howie with Gaby–develop in ways that are painful but potentially liberating- and create a dramatic edge as the audience awaits the overlapping consequences to come.
Rabbit Hole has one of the better ensemble performances of the year–up there with The Town, The Kids Are All Right, and The Fighter. Kidman and Eckhart bring such pain and openness to their roles that it can be hard to watch–it’s so close to the experiences many of us have seen in our own families–or in ourselves. Newcomer Miles Teller plays Jason as a boy who may be permanently shocked by the accident that took Danny’s life–but insists on testing himself beneath the glare of those he has hurt the most. Tammy Blanchard brings carefree energy to the sister’s role that ultimately keeps a subtle sense of hope alive within the family. Dianne Wiest is great as the kind of focused but seemingly bumbling character she was born (or trained) to tackle.
John Cameron Mitchell has brought just the right degree of collaboration and emotional exploration to Rabbit Hole and it has paid off in what is easily one of the best theatrical adaptations in years. It’s a small film that captures the pain of loss, the heartache of loneliness, and the potential for growth that remains alive in each of us.