There really isn’t anything wrong with Rabbit Hole. The score and camera work are serviceable, the dialogue is solid and the actors are all wonderful, just as things should be in a character drama with such a mundane premise. Yet there’s something about this movie that just didn’t click with me. Something I can’t quite put my finger on. Let me go through my praises and nitpicks and maybe I can figure it out.
This is the story of Becca and Howie Corbett, a married couple who lost David — their four-year-old son — in a tragic accident eight months prior. Predictably, the film is about the two of them grieving as they try learning how to move on. Based on the premise, you might expect our two leads (Aaron Eckhardt and Nicole Kidman) to carry the film in tandem as Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams did in Blue Valentine or Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush did in The King’s Speech. That’s not exactly what happens. Though their interplay does power quite a few scenes, our two leads are grieving in ways that are completely unlike each other, putting them on totally different character development tracks.
Howie’s deal is easy enough to explain: He’s going through the motions of letting go, but his heart just isn’t in it. He goes to all of his group therapy sessions, but they do nothing for him. He’s finds excuses to keep David’s things around. It’s like Howie knows deep down that he’ll eventually have to let David go, but he’s trying to put off doing so for as long as possible. What’s more, Howie seems so desperate for comfort that he’ll fill that hole in his heart with anything nearby, from the possibility of having another kid to sneaking off and smoking pot.
To say that Becca’s situation is more complicated would be putting it lightly.
If I had to sum up Becca’s attitude in two words, I’d go with “blind rage.” She”s angry at her sister, a trashy if well-meaning woman who’s gotten herself unexpectedly pregnant out of wedlock. She’s angry at her brother, long since dead from a heroin overdose. She’s angry at her elderly mother, who tries to talk with her as one bereaved mom to another. But perhaps most of all, she’s angry at God and anyone who would praise Him who took David away. She pushes everyone away with the insistence that no one can help her and she wouldn’t want their help if they could. In my opinion, this all adds up to a woman who’s so pissed off at the world that she just wants to hide away, curl up and die. I’m not sure if she’s aware of that and she’d undoubtedly be too proud to admit it if she did, but that’s my unprofessional diagnosis.
Anyway, Becca does manage to find a source of comfort in the unlikeliest place imaginable: Jason, a high school student played by someone named Miles Teller. I personally found Jason to be a highlight of the film, as he’s open and optimistic in a way that no one else in the movie is. Teller also plays Jason with a slight Aspergian charm that I rather liked. Jason and Becca build a wonderful connection together, though I don’t dare reveal the exact nature of it here. Suffice to say that it’s much more poignant and far less perverted than anything you might think.
Dianne Wiest deserves a bit of recognition for her solid work as Becca’s mother, particularly during a monologue she has about dealing with the pain of losing a son. Sandra Oh also earns a mention, playing a reminder that couples who lose children are statistically quite likely to divorce.
As for Eckhardt and Kidman, they both do very well. Really, the only problems I have with their performances are actually due to the characters they play. See, their interplay can be summed up thusly: Becca doesn’t know what to do with herself, Howie doesn’t know what to do with himself and they sure as hell don’t know what to do with each other. They both have their secrets and their own methods of trying to deal with the pain, but their confrontations over such matters are mostly dispassionate and passive-agressive. These characters just build up these concrete walls around themselves, refusing to let anyone else in — not even their own spouses!
The point being that on the one hand, this makes for some great drama on those few occasions when the walls finally break. Yet on the other hand, it’s very difficult to tell a story so focused on internal drama when the characters are this determined not to let anyone — including the audience — in on what they’re thinking or feeling.
It was probably a mistake for me to see this movie so soon after seeing Blue Valentine. In that movie, Gosling and Williams bared their souls to each other and to the audience, making all their lust and pain and confusion clear to see. The film also made use of lengthy and seemingly improvised scenes, in addition to heavy use of shaky-cam. Here, the characters work to keep everyone at arm’s length and the visuals have none of that “cinema verite” feel. In fact, I think that may be the problem.
I understand that the movie was adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from a Pulitzer-winning play that he wrote. That makes a lot of sense, as this story seems much better-suited for live theater. With narratives that are so ordinary and focused on such personal themes, providing an illusion of reality is even more imperative than in most other genres. We have to walk out of the theater feeling like we’ve just met someone and witnessed a crucial event in their lives (for another example, consider Juno and the authentic teenaged dialogue that won Diablo Cody an Oscar and a career). That illusion is so much more attainable without the barrier of a screen or actors vying for Oscar gold.
Last but not least, I should probably address the ending, which encouraged that feeling like something was missing. First of all, Becca is extremely vocal in her distaste for people who find comfort in “God’s plan.” Yet at the end of the film, she finds closure in something that’s every bit as crazy and unprovable as divine intervention. What’s more, the entire story is structured in such a way that it seems to be leading up to something big. Something drastic. Like maybe someone else dies, maybe they decide to have another kid, maybe they sell the house or hell, maybe they decide to get a divorce. Nothing like that happens. They just decide to take everything one day at a time, which seemed to be their plan at the start of the movie. Not that the film lacked for character development — far from it — but some concrete demonstration of their resolution to move on and their ability to do so would have been nice.
Rabbit Hole is just okay. The script is pretty good and the actors are all phenomenal, but a movie so centered around character drama needed much more intimacy than this. I won’t scoff at Kidman’s nomination for Best Actress, though I personally prefer Carey Mulligan’s work in Never Let Me Go. Of course, maybe that’s just me. In fact, I know it’s just me as I seem to be the only one who saw that movie. I digress.
The bottom line is that it’s not a bad movie and I wouldn’t stop anyone from seeing it. However, I don’t think that there’s enough in this film to distinguish it from the other, better Oscar-nominated films that are being screened right now.