The distinctive common element in the three diverse feature films of John Cameron Mitchell, is the way Mitchell lays bear fundamental aspects of what it is that drives and defines us all as human beings. The 2001 cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch explores sexual and gender identity, the explicit 2006 comedy/drama Shortbus looks at various issues connected to sexuality and sexual expression, and now Rabbit Hole focuses on some of the most raw emotions that can afflict us when tragedy strikes. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning stage play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole is tonally a departure from Mitchell’s previous work and yet it continues to demonstrate his deep understanding of human behaviour and his non-judgemental compassion for his characters.
The emotion that runs deepest in Rabbit Hole is grief, although anger and resentment also play leading roles. The characters at the centre of the narrative are married couple Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart) with Becca’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) and sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) as important supporting characters. The source of their pain is withheld from the audience for a considerable length of time, as is the relevance of teenager Jason (Miles Teller) whom Becca forms an uneasy friendship with. By strategically releasing so much important narrative information in later stages of the film the audience are forced to focus their attention on the emotional states that the characters are wrestling with and their relationships to one another, instead of the event itself. This makes the film all the more powerful. There is also repeated use of a strange paper collage artwork as a seemingly non-diegetic transition shot between sequences but even this object has an important meaning that is revealed later in the film.
The tightly structured writing is outstanding and Lindsay-Abaire has expertly adapted his dialogue to suit the big screen without any of it feeling overtly theatrical. Given the flamboyant nature of his previous films Mitchell has demonstrated just how proficient a filmmaker he is with the restrained and affecting way he has approached Rabbit Hole. His careful framing and the use of a soft sometimes washed out light gives the film a melancholic glow that is oddly comforting despite the great sadness that it elicits.
The acting is also superb with the entire cast all doing extremely impressive work playing flawed and pained characters that the audience still want to spend time with. However, it really is Kidman as Becca who takes centre stage as a woman whose grief process doesn’t necessarily conform to the expectations that the people around her have. Becca’s own fight to prevent herself from being consumed with bitterness is compelling viewing and could only be pulled off by a truly dedicated and talented actor. Kidman has had her share of criticism over the years and admittedly chosen some very poor roles in the past, but she has always excelled in difficult parts in challenging films with strong directors. She demonstrated this in The Portrait of a Lady, Eyes Wide Shut, The Hours, Dogville, Birth and now again in Rabbit Hole.
Rabbit Hole is a very sophisticated and moving family drama, comparable to Rachel Getting Married. It is a complicated and difficult film that is also extraordinarily sincere and honest. It is artfully constructed without feeling worthy, it is truthful without being social realism and it is emotionally intense without being melodramatic. It delves deep inside its metaphoric rabbit hole to examine emotions that aren’t frequently explored in such depth. It also suggests that even when overwhelming life-changing events occur, we still do exist in a universe of infinite possibilities. As difficult as it may seem, especially when faced with a situation out of our control, there are always choices we can make to change our situation even if it is to simply alter the way we respond to others. Rabbit Hole is emotional viewing but it ultimately offers a sense of hope where healing and reconciliation are viable options.