Sometime during my first viewing of
Rabbit Hole – John Cameron Mitchell’s delicately threaded, darkly funny
tale of how grief over the accidental death of a four-year-old boy continues to
haunt the family he leaves behind (written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on
his play) – I remembered a terrible secret I hid from my mother: that at ten I
was nearly run over after I dashed into Mamaroneck’s Mt. Pleasant Ave. after a
red rubber ball. At the time I was an only child -- like Danny who chases his
dog and is run over by high school student, Jason (Miles Teller).
My premature death would have
absolutely changed everything within my strange little family unit; Danny’s
death shakes his parents and extended family to the core provoking some unusual
and richly entertaining reactions that the writer, cast and director Mitchell –
in his first non queer film subject – do a sublime job at exploring.
Rabbit Hole opens eight
months later as the parents, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart),
find themselves stuck in neutral. One night after dinner Howie lowers the
lights, pours a glass of wine for Becca and, with Al Green on the stereo,
starts gently massaging her neck.
“You wanna have sex.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“It sounds crass and selfish.”
“Well, don’t you think it is a
little crass and selfish for you to be roping me into sex?”
“I wasn’t roping you into anything.
“Al Green isn’t roping?”
“I was trying to make things nice.”
“I’m sorry. But things aren’t nice
Grief turns Becca into a prickly
pear: keeping Howie at a distance, upset that he clings to tokens of Danny’s
existence: videos of the kid playing with his dog, his bedroom an intact museum;
Becca is also curt with her wild girl sister Izzy, (Tammy Blanchard) annoyed
that sis is newly pregnant, by a musician no less, and finally Becca’s pissed
at her garrulous mom Nat’s (Dianne Wiest) habit of comparing Danny’s “innocent”
demise to the heroin death of her son.
Howie insists on dragging Becca to
a therapy group of couples sharing memories of their dead kids as a way of
“moving on,” but these folks, too, are stuck, their unresolved feelings a kind
Since Rabbit Hole means to
be a grown up, Oprah free zone, where adults face the reality that there is no
closure, no tidy solutions or easy mantras to ward off the soul killing effects
of long term grief, the filmmakers employ some sharp, and for some,
uncomfortably dark humorous beats to keep things from becoming unbearably sad.
Ergo Nat’s wacky monologue on the Kennedy clan’s decades long dance with death
and Howie’s decision to smoke pot before the meetings with a lonely woman
(Sandra Oh) whose own husband has ditched group and her. A wicked moment occurs
in the bedroom of the dead kid when Howie – showing the house to prospective
buyers, young parents with their own young son in tow – suggests almost
gleefully that if they buy his house the ghost of his dead son will be
tossed in as an odd kind of closing bonus,
David Lindsay-Abaire has expanded
on his Pulitzer award-winning play. A major upgrade involves Becca tailing
Jason’s school bus. Becca and Jason’s scenes are crucial to buying the film’s
nuanced take on the intractably open-ended nature of grief. If you’re put off
by the feeling that Becca is “stalking” Jason then maybe that’s a deal breaker.
If, however, your favorite movies involve characters who wildly trespass across
social boundaries then this almost flirtatious “courtship” across the
generations should pique your interest -- adding emotional credibility to the
science fiction like metaphor cradled in Jason’s comic book, Rabbit Hole, as
a child pursues his dead scientist dad into a strange vortex of parallel
“Somewhere out there, there’s a
version of me, what? – making pancakes?”
“Sure. If space is infinite, then
there are tons of you’s out there, and tons of me’s.”
“And this is just the sad version
of us – there are other versions where everything goes our way.”
“That’s a nice thought. That
somewhere out there I’m having a good time.”
Rabbit Hole pivots on a
troubling, ferociously conflicted relationship: two people reaching out across
an abyss: neither friends, nor enemies, neither mother/son nor lovers -- this
most untypical couple perch on a park bench constructing a new myth allowing
them to pursue their separate fates.
Actor, playwright, filmmaker John
Cameron Mitchell has had ample opportunity to grapple with grief – from the
childhood death of a younger brother, to his work in Larry Kramer’s classic
AIDS era drama, The Destiny of Me, to creating his miraculous queer
redemptive comedies Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. Our
phone chat covered a daring collaboration with the writer, the stars,
co-producer Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart as well as his nurturing a revelatory
performance from newcomer Miles Teller.
Lamble: Howie’s tour through Danny’s room radiates
disjointed black humor -- he’s imparting the message that if you buy this house
you son’s bedroom will be haunted by my dead son.
Mitchell: It’s almost Pinteresque. I encouraged Aaron
to improvise, “You know, I still talk to my child, he’s here, he’ll always be
here – whoever buys the house he’ll be with them.”
Lamble: Miles Teller has a remarkable face, a face
people haven’t seen so they’re not confusing him with any other character.
Mitchell: Miles almost slipped through the cracks –
the agents were pushing all these inappropriately cute people because that’s
the only people they represent lately. But this kid had to be real, he had to
be that guy, who probably doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, who now
speaks to fewer people because of this incident that will affect him for the
rest of his life. Miles had these eyes that had seen things before his time, he
knew something that twenty-year-olds don’t know. He had experienced loss – of
his best friend – the year before the audition. Nicole saw him blush on camera
in the call backs and that’s what sold her. I gave him special attention
because I know that a young actor can crumple under the luminescence of a
Nicole Kidman and he really held his own in those key scenes. I had to work
some magic to keep him relaxed. I really love him, but as I told him, I created
him and I can destroy him!
Lamble: Nicole and Miles are like mother and son.
It’s hard to describe how this arc develops but it’s appropriate in a funny
Mitchell: They’re almost having a platonic affair.
Lamble: It’s flirtatious.
Mitchell: He’s with this beautiful woman whose life
he destroyed – they’re the only people they can stand to be with. And then she
seeks him out in a kind of almost secretive, I’m having an affair kind of way,
in which she sees him going to the prom in such a perfect moment because not
only does this boy have a life outside of her’s but he stands in for her child,
Danny, who will never have a prom – it’s a perfect moment for her to collapse.