A good friend of mine classifies certain types of films, usually dramas, as ‘a day in the life’ movies. These are films that are typically less story-driven and focus more on character development. I like to call these films ‘procedurals’ because in addition to focusing on developing characters, they also tend to take you through a comprehensive examination of whatever the subject matter of the film is. Last year’s THE AMERICAN, a film I coincidentally saw with my ‘a day in the life’ film friend, is a perfect recent example. The movie doesn’t contain much of a story and whatever story it has merely serves to flesh out George Clooney’s assassin-for-hire character. Fitting its ‘procedural’ description, THE AMERICAN also thoroughly examines the life of a hitman and the various obstacles and issues that his lifestyle engenders. Neither my friend or I found THE AMERICAN to be a bad movie, but at the same time we weren’t left with any feeling of satisfaction or inspiration. It was a thoughtful movie that deserved a certain amount of respect for the thoroughness the filmmakers strived to achieve, but nothing more. Now comes John Cameron Mitchell’s recently acclaimed RABBIT HOLE, a film that left me with the same feeling I got after I finished watching THE AMERICAN albeit with far better performances to watch from Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest.

Depending on your views of Christmas season, RABBIT HOLE is probably the worst film to watch during the holidays. Simply put, it is about a young, married couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) from Yonkers who are trying to cope with the recent death of their young son, who was killed as he was chasing his dog out onto the street. Pretty harrowing shit.

I’m a child of the 80’s and in that decade, we saw some pretty damn good dramas that somehow or someway always managed to get the audience to pull out the Kleenex (maybe audiences were dumber then and fell for stupid shit, who knows). Films like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, and OUT OF AFRICA were made by people who truly understood melodrama without making it too cheesy, or forced, or boring. I think if RABBIT HOLE had been made in the 80s, it would have been a much more interesting film. For one thing, it would have been a helluva lot better paced. I mean I can appreciate Mitchell wanting to examine all the detailed motions that a couple who has lost a child would probably suffer through. That is interesting from a clinical/informative perspective because people who lose loved ones, especially young children, are usually closed off from society and we don’t actually see what kind of hell they go through. So in that sense, RABBIT HOLE presents an interesting scholarly-like presentation of a couple’s grief. At the same time, Mitchell’s choice to show us every aspect of the couple’s life necessarily includes a lot of boring, mundane stuff that, quite frankly, I could really care less about and that dampened any sort of drama or dramatic buildup that was potentially there. My point is that I wish Mitchell had been more selective of what moments from this married couple’s life to put up onscreen. I wanted there to be a better emotional momentum and more melodramatic moments. Sure, we got a few memorable moments here and there (i.e. like when Eckhart confronts the young man who killed his son), but it wasn’t enough to sustain the film’s momentum and it certainly wasn’t enough to establish any sort of pacing.

Another issue I had with the film was in the characters themselves. This isn’t to say that the actors performances were lacking in some way because they absolutely were not. Both Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart (and Dianne Wiest) deliver top-notch performances. My issue was my inability to empathize with the married couple and their grief. I know we’re not always supposed to like our main characters, but in a film like this, where I think we should connect with what the couple is going through and feel their loss, its of paramount importance that we like the people onscreen. I didn’t get that feeling. I certainly didn’t hate the couple, but I kept thinking to myself that had they not lost their child, they would be just another asshole yuppie Starbucks-loving Lexus-driving family. At the very least, I wanted to feel sorry for their losing a child, but I couldn’t even feel that. Kidman bottles up all of her emotions as she tries to regain a semblance of normalcy in her life. Although she’s obviously not completely over the loss of her child, she certainly isn’t as distraught as I would expect her to be. Eckhart comes off the better balanced of the two as he accepts that his son is gone and he tries to move forward in a more rational, normal manner. The best moments with these characters are those where they talk about mundane, every day stuff in an attempt to be a normal couple. There is an underlying tension during these conversations and you can feel the forced casualness the characters create in order to bottle up issues they have obviously not resolved.

As great as Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart are in this movie, the better moments belong to the supporting characters, namely Dianne Wiest. Wiest is undoubtedly one of the best character actors working in this industry and to me, she will forever be the mom from THE LOST BOYS. I have not seen her in a film for quite a long time (I think the last time was in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY) so it was a nice treat to see her back onscreen. Wiest plays Kidman’s mom. Unlike her daughter and son-in-law, she doesn’t think its healthy repressing all of the couple’s grieving emotions. She herself had lost a son to a drug overdose so she relates to what the couple is going through. Wiest’s character totally nails the sort of mom that many, if not most, of us have: brutally honest who says embarrassing things at the wrong time. One of the things I particularly enjoyed about Wiest’s character is how she turns to her Christian faith to deal with the loss of her son. There are a number of scenes between she and her daughter where they discuss God and the role of faith in times of grief.

Another highlight of RABBIT HOLE is the character of the teenage boy (Miles Teller) who accidentally killed the couple’s son. Some of the best character moments in the film belong to Teller as he begins a sort of friendship (or depending on how you see it, a healing) with Kidman. Of all the characters in the film, I felt the most sorry for Teller because he wasn’t the typically irresponsible teenager. He wasn’t drinking and partying with his friends before he killed the young boy. Teller is a quiet, introspective, and intelligent young man who was actually driving carefully when he killed the boy. What makes you feel so sorry for him was that there wasn’t really much more that Teller could have done to have prevented the accident. He didn’t deserve having to go through living with this pain for the rest of his life. Mitchell uses an interesting narrative device in RABBIT HOLE by comparing all the characters’ intertwined stories to a science fiction comic book that Teller has created. Those who know me well know that I’m a huge comic book geek and any film that uses a comic book to convey a message is alright with me.

Overall, I didn’t dislike RABBIT HOLE and in terms of acting, it gave us some of the very best performances of 2010. At the same time, I could really care less about sitting through an hour and a half of some upper middle class couple’s grief. By the way, my lack of empathy for the characters also has nothing to do with the fact that I have no children. In the above-mentioned 80s films, I was able to emotionally connect with the story and the characters despite the fact that I’m not a Holocaust survivor, or a Jew, or, in the case of KRAMER VS. KRAMER, grow up in a single-parent household. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart spend the majority of the film with zombified, silent faces. They are just as dead emotionally as their son is dead physically. The film is pockmarked with dramatic moments, but unfortunately we don’t get enough of those. By the way, we don’t actually see the accident until the end of the movie, but its so anticlimactic and you’re so ready to leave the theater by then, that it just ends up being a missed opportunity for the director. RABBIT HOLE was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire and its obvious from watching the film that this was originally made for the stage. As with many stage-to-film adaptations, the transition doesn’t usually succeed and I think RABBIT HOLE was better relegated to staying onstage. If you want to see a much more compelling film about a family dealing with tragedy, check out Robert Redford’s ORDINARY PEOPLE.

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