by Raj Ranade
Chalk one up for terrible movie theater design practices! As a drama about grief, John Cameron Mitchell’s new film Rabbit Hole is understandably light on explosions. As a dumb action spectacle, The Green Hornet is full of them, so it may seem that positioning the two movies in adjacent, poorly-sound-insulated auditoriums (as they have been at the Fayette Mall theater) is not the best idea. As it turns out, though, the low-frequency rumble that permeates the thin theater walls actually provides a critical complement to Mitchell’s film.
Understanding why requires a look at the curious approach Mitchell takes to a film about parents coping with the death of a child. Most films of this sort focus on the immediate emotional rupture following a death, which allows for grand displays of Acting as stars stage grief as a grotesque spectacle, with liberal amounts of screaming and breast-beating (the key example here is Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, with Angelina Jolie’s drinking-game-worthy repetition of the shriek “I want my son back”). Rabbit Hole does something trickier, focusing instead on hairline fractures that spider out into the months and years after a tragedy.
Rabbit Hole opens eight months after the son of affluent Connecticut couple Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) has been hit by a car, and the distance from tragedy allows Mitchell to gently satirize his protagonists even as he sympathizes with them. Mitchell is the director of films like Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical about a transsexual East German punk rocker seeking love, and this counterculturist’s take on yuppie suburbia has an undercurrent of snark. Normalcy for this couple would be the glazed ideal of a car commercial that Mitchell approximates in his visuals (in one scene, Mitchell lingers on the slow closing of an automatic trunk door even after actual humans have left the frame) and all the cliches those ads entail – Howie doesn’t get away with the thuddingly obvious choice of Al Green music in one attempted seduction (and not even 1972 classic Al Green – he uses 2008 album-that-was-obviously-sold-in-Starbucks Al Green!).
It’s these touches of weirdness and whimsy that make this film valuable – Rabbit Hole is at its best when it’s tumbling down the odd pathways that its title suggests. Chief among these is the film’s vicious wit, particularly in regards to ritualized mourning processes like group therapy – a scene where Howie and a disillusioned co-conspirator (Sandra Oh) show up to a session high and giggle at the word “leukemia” is as cruel and as funny a scene as any last year. There’s also the cosmic allusion in the title – Becca later strikes up an unlikely semi-friendship with the teen who accidentally killed her son (Miles Teller, spitting image of the actual Mark Zuckerberg), and the latter’s fascination with parallel universes and black holes has a thought-provoking metaphysical pull.
All of these unorthodox touches are a fascinating cerebral element of the film, but at the same time, this is a fairly traditional drama about loss and recovery, and the fact that the icy cerebral tone extends to the performances might be something of a miscalculation. As Becca, Kidman has finally returned to the world of the living after zombie-like performances in films like Australia (NYMag’s Vulture Blog has a useful examination of the particular facial element that might have caused the problem), and she’s very good at portraying a woman who papers over her emotional vulnerability with caustic sarcasm (a performance that has earned her a deserved Oscar nomination), but just as she shuts out those around her, she shuts out the audience from true understanding. That’s where the theater design comes in – Rabbit Hole works very well on the head, but it doesn’t get in you in the gut with a real visceral impact. It’s left to the ambient bass bleeding through the walls to hit your stomach with the real emotional rumble of grief (and in the case of this film and The Green Hornet, I could swear that the sound synced up better than The Wizard of Oz and The Dark Side of the Moon).
That may well be the point, of course. Even if to this viewer it seems like a portrait of grief is somewhat incomplete without that sort of gut-punch, it’s a fascinating achievement to make a film like this that feels so free of cheap audience manipulation and instead focuses on the thoughtful, unbiased recording of human foibles. Rabbit Hole is more unique than you’d expect from any film dealing with this old subject matter, which is no small thing in this day and age. And if nothing else, it has brought my attention to the serendipity possible in theater pairings. I look forward to seeing the inevitable next Sex and the City movie being appropriately positioned next to a horror movie resounding with the screams of the damned.
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