Rabbit Hole (2010)

Director: John Cameron Mitchell

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I just read a news report about how the parents of a Rutgers University student who killed himself after his roommate allegedly used a spycam to record him having sex with a man and then posted the video on the Internet intend to get even. They plan to sue the university. Their suit states that “it appears Rutgers University failed to act, failed to put in place and/or failed to implement and enforce policies and practices that would have prevented or deterred such acts, and that Rutgers failed to act timely and appropriately.” In legalese, their action is known as a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of lawsuit can serve justice when gross negligence is uncovered—for example, medical malpractice or police brutality—forcing not only reparations, but also reforms to be put in place. It is also a device that allows angry, grieving people to take their rage out on anyone in the vicinity of their pain.

Here in the United States, people are exceedingly fond of using the courts to intimidate and beat each other up. Life is no longer left to chance when we can always find someone to blame for our misfortunes and can turn to an exceedingly obliging cadre of plaintiff’s attorneys who are happy to take our money or a percentage of the damages awarded to soothe our wounds by wrecking holy hell on the scalawags who dared to rain on our parade. It takes a lot of bravery for people to recognize that playing the blame game, either in the hard form of a lawsuit or even physical violence, or in lesser forms like grudge-holding and verbal abuse, serves little or no purpose other than vengeance and a deflection of guilt. For people do indeed feel a great deal of guilt for the harm they cause others, even if they had absolutely no control over the bad things that happened. And that guilt can be downright unbearable.

Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, is a film that represents an advance in the way we think of tragedies, the vast majority of which are accidental. It posits that we’ll feel angry, sad, disconnected, and more than a little crazy, but that we don’t have to find someone to blame in order to deal with our loss and get on with our lives. Unlike a very similar film from three decades ago, Ordinary People (1980), Rabbit Hole shows the anger and loss two parents feel when their 4-year-old son is run down by a car, but it avoids the blame game that subtly inflected that film and that screamed out against the mother in the book by Judith Guest on which Robert Redford’s film was based.

Rabbit Hole opens with close-ups and overhead shots of Becca (Nicole Kidman) emptying bags of topsoil onto her garden beds, working it into the earth below with her hands, and planting flowers along the edge of the bed. Her next-door neighbor Peg (Patricia Kalember) comes over to invite Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) over that evening for a barbecue. Becca makes an excuse and then abruptly stares down at her neighbor’s feet; Peg has inadvertently trampled one of the newly planted flowers. Apologizing and excusing herself awkwardly, she leaves, and Becca bends down to inspect the damage; the flower is irretrievably broken. Not a very subtle way to open a movie about the loss of a child, but from there on out, nothing about this film trafficks in cliché.

Becca and Howie go through each week the way others in their situation might. Becca, who used to work at Sotheby’s in New York, quit her job—whether after her son Danny’s birth or death is never revealed—and stays at home cooking, baking, working out, and tending to the house. Howie goes to work, plays squash with a colleague, and tries to reach out to a closed-off Becca. Both of them attend a support group for parents who have lost children, though Becca resists the help the other parents try to offer and openly criticizes a couple who says their daughter died because God needed another angel. “Why didn’t He just make one?” she says. “He’s God after all!” Not surprisingly, this is Becca’s last group session. Howie, more open in his grieving, watches a video of Danny on his cellphone each evening and continues to go to group without Becca.

The outside world confronts the damaged parents with challenges. Becca’s ne’er-do-well sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) reveals that she is pregnant by her boyfriend Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito, in a welcome performance from a rarely seen favorite of mine), answering Becca’s question about why she told their mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) first, “Why do you think?” Becca’s best friend Debbie (Julie Lauren) has avoided Becca since the funeral. One day, Becca drives alongside a school bus and spies Jason (a brilliant Miles Teller), the teenager who drove the car that killed Danny, dangerously running a red light herself to keep up with the bus so that she can see where he lives. When the senior member of the support group, Gaby (Sandra Oh), reveals to Howie that her husband has left her, he is tempted to retreat into physical comfort with her.

What Rabbit Hole does so well is individualize each character while covering the spectrum of possibilities that face parents who lose children. The film not only dignifies the plight of those who lose young children, but it also offers sympathy for those whose children are grown. It even shows how someone most of us would say “good riddance” about was once someone’s bright-faced boy or girl, innocent and full of promise. Nat incurs Becca’s wrath when she compares the loss of her son, a 30-year-old junkie who OD’d, to Danny. “He was still my son!” Nat shoots back painfully. Later, Becca will seek her mother’s advice, wondering if the pain ever goes away. “No, but it changes,” Nat answers, “it becomes a brick you carry around in your pocket. And you’re glad it’s there.” This reassures Becca, who was unsettled by Howie’s accusation that she is trying to erase Danny by giving his clothes away, taking his art projects off the refrigerator, wanting to sell the house, and deleting the video from his cellphone—another accident that, tellingly, Howie thinks was deliberate.

Howie doesn’t understand, however, why Becca has been meeting with Jason. The young man is grief-stricken himself about the accident. He tries to express his guilt, saying in an almost comically serious tone that he thinks he might have been driving too fast, “I may have been going 31 or 32, and the speed limit is 30.” The truth is that he swerved to avoid hitting Danny’s beloved dog, and didn’t see Danny running after the dog until it was too late. This kind of second-guessing is familiar to Becca, and to Howie, who wonder if everything would have been all right if they had just done one thing different that awful day. As they see it, they failed in their job as parents to protect their child, but no one can be insulated from every possible danger, though the demand for such certainty seems to be more shrill than ever these days.

I was extremely impressed with all of the performances in this film and the very real family all the principals created. Kidman uses her somewhat self-contained style to great effect here, melting ever so slightly a bit at a time as the film moves into its late stages. Her work with Blanchard creates a very believable dynamic of two sisters, one the golden girl and the other the butt of criticism, who fall easily into judgment and defensiveness. The root of their personalities, and by inference, their druggie brother, is their alcoholic mom. Wiest has never been better, suggesting a crazy coarseness that mingles love and understanding with narcissistic self-pity. Eckhart is convincing as a man who is sensitive, but also can be very stubborn about his wife’s “incorrect” behavior. He doesn’t see his own contradictions very clearly, screaming self-righteously at Jason when he comes into their home during a real estate open house, and then telling Becca after Jason has left to be sure he knows they don’t blame him.

Eventually, Howie and Becca begin to accept their differing ways of grieving, and take some tentative steps toward continuing the lives they had mainly put on hold. Becca calls Debbie and invites her to a small cookout in the backyard. Maybe Howie and Becca will eventually split up just like Gaby and her husband did 8 years after they lost their child. In this life, there are no guarantees. But really, it’s nobody’s fault.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    22nd/12/2010 to 4:42 pm

    This is clearly one of the best films of 2010, and I concur with the thematic references to ORDINARY PEOPLE. In addition to extraordinary performance from Kidman, Ekhart and Teller, one must applaud the work of screenwriter David-Lindsay Abair and director John Cameron Mitchell who delicately manage to stay neutral through the sometimes exlosive interactions, and offer some effective moments of comic relief to cut through the somber mood.use of music. Composer Anton Sanko has written a piano dominated score, with the flute and strings contributing impressively, that is at once plantive and piercing, and it serves as an aural underpinning of longing and melancholy. Like James Horner’s moody work in Field of Dreams, which was vital to that film’s wistful sense of mystery, Sanko proves here why less is sometimes more. Likewise the seemingly innocuous camerwork of Frank G. DeMarco seems to evoke the right muted tones, while maintaining an eye for sedate interiors and inobtrusive outdoor locales.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/12/2010 to 6:21 pm

    I’m afraid this is one time where I’m going to have to ask how the weather is. I thought this was a watchable but fairly tepid piece of bourgeois emotion-porn with a truly dreadful music score that Mitchell allowed to do most of the work for him, and it failed to escape its stagy origins. I did like Aaron Eckhart’s performance, which had just the right wild swings between superficial calm and hysteria, and some of the smaller details, mostly involving Becca’s family. The will-he-or-won’t-he subplot with Howie and Gaby was pretty excruciating (although their getting stoned at the group therapy bit was worth the price of watching), and the philosophising bits between Becca and Jason trite, like overblown acting exercises. It’s such a monument to its own good-taste that it completely forgets to feel alive.

    Still, I like how you try to contextualise it, Mare.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/12/2010 to 6:36 pm

    Thanks, Sam, for the completion of the pertinent details.

    Rod – I really did not know this had been based on a stage play. I didn’t feel any staginess to it, and after the fact, thought Mitchell did a great job of opening it up. Also, I didn’t think Howie and Gaby’s would-be tryst was overdone at all. We knew there would be temptation, but when he didn’t even come up on her patio when he went over, well, I thought that was pretty tasteful.

    Maybe this seemed too benign a resolution to a terrible tragedy, but I was pleased that it took the high road and didn’t feel like I was vampirizing someone else’s grief. Although I liked The Pledge, for example, I really though Patricia Clarkson pushed her fanatical grief to the pornographic limit. This family just seemed rather ordinary to me, and I liked that.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    22nd/12/2010 to 9:07 pm

    “I thought this was a watchable but fairly tepid piece of bourgeois emotion-porn with a truly dreadful music score that Mitchell allowed to do most of the work for him, and it failed to escape its stagy origins…”

    The weather indeed Rod! Yikes!

    Well, needless to say we are at diametric opposites on Sanko’s score, which I feel aurally captures the very feelings imparted by teh narrative arc. The opening up of a stage play is always a very touchy matter, as it’s usually at the expense of the delicate character dynamics. I believe Mitchell plays the right balance at Adair’s behest, and a more audacious and viseral visual schematic (like in Jackson’s LOVELY BONES) would do more harm that good. Besides, with a film like this (based on a very popular, Tony Award winning play) tyhe material speaks for itself, and things need to be left well enough alone.

    Aside from that, I’ll mention that I just maybe 20 minutes ago got back in the house after taking in the Coens’ Brothers’ TRUE GRIT with the family. It’s exquisitely crafted, acted and filmed (by the great Roger Deakins in prime form) and seems to deserve all the praise it’s won. Whether I would deem to say it should rank among the very best films of the year, well I’d have to think about that long and hard, but it’s quite good, and I’d be hard pressed to document any “flaws.”

  • Colin spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 6:39 am

    Sorry Marilyn/Sam, but I’m going to have to side with Rod on this one. Rabbit Hole, to me, seemed to scream Oscar with its hand-wringing faux-profundity. Kidman was off-putting, the peripheral stories swept over, and a decent Wiest performance wasted. Twenty years ago I could see how it would fit with other such melodrama, but not today.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 7:09 am

    With all dues respect Colin, I am always more than a little suspect with the pulling of the “Oscar card” at every prestide film with serious themes that comes out the end of the year as if it were some kind of an incurably malady. RABBIT HOLE most assuredly is NOT an Oscar film, but more of a serious critics’ film as can be seen at comments like the extremely-difficult-to-please Stephanie Zachareck, who opines:

    “Director John Cameron Mitchell – adapting David Lindsay-Abaire’s play – has a surprisingly deft touch with this admittedly downbeat material; he builds dramatic intensity in subtle layers, rather than slapping it on with a trowel.”

    Why pray tell would Oscar voters, who have a long track precord for the fell-good varities, go for a film like this? ORDINARY PEOPLE was a far different story, as it’s source material was celebrated, and it ended on as embracing a note as any film dealing with this material ever could.

    No, I’d say this film will be popular (as it is) with the cerebral critics, (who favor subtlety and delicacy) as was the case with THE SWEET HEREAFTER , STONE BOY, MAN IN THE MOON and BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, all of which was just about shut out for Oscar nominations.

    This is not an Oscar film, but a critics film.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 7:11 am

    First paragraph:

    “dues” should be “due”

    “prestide” should be “prestige”

    Last paragraph:

    “was” should be “were”

    Very sorry, my eyes here in the morning.

  • Colin spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 8:08 am

    I’d argue that there have been many nominees over the years whose characters have begun, existed, and terminated in the same downbeat style – Kate Winslet (The Reader), Anne Hathaway (Rachel Got Married), Julie Christie (Away From Her), even Charlize Theron (Monster) come to mind, and that’s just from recent memory.
    As you pointed out, this movie was released at ‘Oscar time’, and it’s only natural to assume that it’s casting doleful eyes towards LA in February. Nothing wrong with that, of course; everyone’s got bills to pay, and acting checklists to tick off. This ’emotion-porn’, as Rod put it, was simply not for me, even as a devoted parent (who you would think would be most affected by its theme).

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 9:50 am

    Rabbit Hole is not likely to be nominated for much, at the very outside, a supporting actress nom for Wiest. Is this the best film ever? No. But it did something I liked very much – it promoted forgiveness. I prefer to think of this as a holiday, not Oscar, movie because I felt good that people could hurt and yet still behave decently to one another. It didn’t gloss over the tragedy and how it’s something these people will never get over, nor the fact that their marriage could end. It showed people are different, process their emotions differently, moved at different speeds. It was, to me, a very human film, one that made it kind of all right that people could hurt and act differently and still be a family. I don’t know what makes that melodramatic or emotion-porn or any of these other things.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 10:42 am

    Well, Colin, I am a parent of five (14 down to 9) and this film resonated with me deeply on a number of levels. But that’s cool, it does all come down to a personal connection with the material. I agree with Marilyn that it’s Oscar prospects are slim, and Kidman herself is questionable when you figure in the downbeat nature of the material, and the stiff competition in that category this year.

    I’m remiss here (especially as someone who lives minutes from the George Washington Bridge suicide here in Northern New Jersey) not to make reference to Marilyn’s lead-in when she broaches the painful subject of young Tyler Clemente’s passing. That tragedy remains an open wound for so many, and it cries out for reform at colleges and other institutions, where first ammendment rights are always in danger with pranksters, homophobes and racists on the prowl. This ugly episode was bound to reach the new stages of litigation, which frankly is more than warranted.

    Geez, I made many more typos than I imagined above. My apologies.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 11:01 am

    Sam – Without getting too political, I really wonder what Rutgers could have done, or should have done after the fact. I’m not up on all the facts of the case, so perhaps I shouldn’t talk till I am, but just how is a university supposed to keep tabs on things before the fact, and what can they do after the fact that isn’t a huge invasion of a person’s freedom. Schools already have no-recourse policies that punish students (my friend is an attorney who handles school disciplinary hearings). We need to start a lot earlier with teaching respect and decency and punish examples in our public sphere who commit crimes and get off free or with a wrist slap.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    23rd/12/2010 to 4:20 pm

    “We need to start a lot earlier with teaching respect and decency and punish examples in our public sphere who commit crimes and get off free or with a wrist slap.”

    Yep, I completely agree Marilyn. And it’s an equally excellent point you make about the great difficulty that Rutgers (or any other university) could have prevented such a tragedy from happening, short of near-Fascist measures. The two students who were slapped with minor invasion of privacy charges are indeed getting no more than a slap on the wrist, and really only suffered the nominal indignity of having to withdraw from the college, paving the way for a transfer. Their actions were abhorant, even if the end result wasn’t anticipated. That entire calamity bothered me for many days as it did so many others.

  • Claire spoke:
    30th/12/2010 to 10:13 am

    I haven’t seen this film, but I enjoyed reading this review very much. Thanks!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/12/2010 to 9:05 am

    Thank you, Claire, for your continued readership. Glad you enjoyed this.

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