Friday, December 10, 2010

'Waiting for My Real Life to Begin': "Rabbit Hole" review

Becca (Nicole Kidman) goes to her garden. She lays soil, plants flowers, and gazes for just a moment at their beauty. The camera captures the purple flower in a dramatic close-up briefly before Becca is interrupted by a neighbor inviting her to dinner. She politely refuses, her wave of happiness vanishing behind slight coils of tension. Her smile evaporates and, for some reason, she seems nothing but defeated.

These are the opening moments of John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole," a film comprised of small moments of unspeakable magnitude. Picking up with a grief-stricken couple (Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) eight months after their son was tragically killed by a wayward motorist, it's more than a poignant tear-jerker about learning how to deal with life's tragic luck.  This is a film to stir the soul, about minute choices and unsolvable dilemmas.  It's perfectly observed, marvelously captured, and somehow speaks to the deep recesses of our emotions.

Mitchell impressed the film world in 2001 when he brought his play "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" to life. With it came a rousing, quirky, and undeniably personal use of the cinematic form.  He brought to the musical and to queer cinema a daring sensibility, and it resulted in a film that rocked to its own beat and broke conventions with a wrecking ball.  With "Rabbit Hole," he's made a quieter, more sullen film, one that's bent on letting us soak in the details rather than be assaulted with them.

And these visuals are absolutely worth observing, worth pondering, for Mitchell and director of photography Frank G. DeMarco know where to place the camera at every moment. They use the space of Becca and Howie's house to maximum effect, putting the camera in corners, behind doors, or on top of the staircase, using a single table light to shape the whole appearance of a room. The camera lingers, it observes, and in its observance it notices the small fractures of its characters, but it also lingers long enough to let us watch them smooth over their own cracks. We catch not only Becca's sorrow sweep in, but we see her push it out with the simple readjustment of her shoulders or her lips.

"Rabbit Hole" takes its title from a thematic undercurrent that there could exist parallel universes; we could exist in several places at once, and this, as Becca says, "may just be the sad version."  In a film pervasively concerned not only with grief but with the process of grief, it uses this "rabbit hole" as a way to help Becca experience the closest thing to closure she can give herself at this point in her life, but the film itself is a rabbit hole, a kaleidoscope of how different people experience the same kind of grief and learn to carry it with them.

Part of why the film succeeds is in how it continually confounds expectations for a drama of this variety.  Howie, as played by Eckhart, tries to keep their son's memory alive wherever he can, going so far as to keep the car-seat firmly in place.  He opens up to Gaby (Sandra Oh), a friend from their counseling group who is also experiencing deeply confusing emotions multiple years after her own tragedy.  To reveal how their relationship develops would discredit the great lengths the film - and Eckhart - go to in creating multiple layers to these characters, but it never once develops into the cheap "sad husband decides to have an affair to find fulfillment" gimmick.

No, the film isn't interested in finding solutions to grief, it's interested in observing the process.  Dianne Wiest, as Becca's mother Nat, also carries her own sadness, which she says can never leave her, but she carries it around "like a brick." Wiest's interchanges with Kidman are devastating in how deep they penetrate into these characters' psyches in only a few sentences at a time; they have the air of two people constantly trying to figure out how to communicate but never quite doing a good enough job.  So too are Kidman and Eckhart, who don't just play their marriage as a series of highs and lows, but delve into the idea that their lives are trying to right themselves.  Kidman has not been this good in years -- stripped of all her pretensions, she doesn't quite bare her soul as she lets us watch her try to cover it up. It's an incredibly moving and incredibly intricate role.

"Rabbit Hole" is adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his play, and while it at first has the ring of a chamber play, with multiple lengthy scenes taking place around the home, Mitchell finds so many ways to open the film up visually that it never feels redundant. The writing is sharp and tight, while the visuals take on a deeply meditative tone, letting the film almost glide.

I quoted a Colin Hay song as the title of this review: "Waiting For My Real Life to Begin." "And you say, just be here now / Forget about the past, your mask is wearing thin / Just let me throw one more dice, I know that I can win / I'm waiting for my real life to begin," the acoustic track croons, and this to me encapsulates what this beautiful little film is about.  It's about grief, but it also shows love as something so profound, something that can fix even the deepest of wounds.  While Becca and Howie are indeed waiting for their lives to begin again, trying to plant their feet on the ground and grieve together, trying to shed the masks they have to wear in public to keep up appearances, they still have each other.  The film reminds us of this, and Kidman and Eckhart capture it all so perfectly.

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