Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Runtime: 92 min.
Verdict: A keenly observed leftist drama. It is a moving film, and every inch of it is earned.
Genre: Drama

        If Shortbus is anything to go by Mr. Mitchell is a complete non-conformist. A non-conformist not merely for the sake of it, but probably an instinctive one. I dig that. I dig questioning a whole lot of accepted set of practices and beliefs around me. The dead-child genre has been done to death so many times most of them are dead-on-arrival. I remember Reservation Road, I remember Antichrist, I remember Don’t look Now and I remember how schematic those films were, having absolutely nothing to do with the way you and me deal with grief, but how high art should be dealing with it, providing not for insight but for poetry that you and me could discuss over or write huge passages about. These movies are not about the grief in the first place, only using that kind of an event has leverage. It could be called pretentious, or one could ignore it altogether. That being the case, let’s not dwell on it too further.
        Rabbit Hole, meanwhile, is delightfully and instinctively leftist, and unabashedly elitist. That might sound quite surprising for a film about everyday people, but then, that’s what we all are. I don’t think most of us have an eye or mind for the bourgeoisie melodrama, and any of that theatrical wailing and subsequent nonsense (forests, metaphysical, psychics) quickly relegates the work in question to the realm of fiction, at once making it “profound” and useless. Oh, but in my enthusiasm for its politics if I’m introducing it as one consciously adhering to an agenda, rather than a remarkably observant story of a couple in a period of distress, I apologize.
        Let me backtrack a little. The most significant detail that Rabbit Hole gets right for itself – its tone, its aesthetic, its characters, its overall arc – is the time. Eight months. Eight months it has been since Becca (Ms. Kidman) and Howie (Mr. Eckhart), lovers from college days, now married and into their thirties, have lost their young son to an accident. Eight months on page is fine, but eight months in tone is so uncharacteristic it grazes the realm of the revolutionary. Eight months, dear reader, eight months since a tragedy. I’m in the middle of buying a house, and my builder lost his mother only forty days ago. Melodramatic cinema would have him colored in gray, with a beard, still locked within the emotion of the event. Such cinematic characters do not display emotion affected by time, because they haven’t moved at all. For them, it might as well be eight years. But my builder is doing fine. We all do fine. We adapt, and we move on. That is who we are. Ask Darren Aronofsky to make a movie that deals with events post the eighth month, and chances are the project will be completed by a different filmmaker. It requires observation dear reader, requires understanding, requires subtlety, requires restraint, requires compassion.
        But then, eight months is clever too. Yes, it is a time period that demands a film to show something other than bourgeoisie theatricality. But at the same time, it is not a period so far-off from the tragedy that we lose almost all sight of it and have to develop a different story altogether only remotely affected by the tragedy. Rather, it still equips the filmmaker and the writer to use the grief as the fulcrum to the plot. It is a transitory period, but it is still that period. Rabbit Hole is most interesting because it is film that finds us in the fag end of that transition. Or probably in the beginning of it. You tell me.
        In my turn, I would love to tell you a thing or two about Becca. Ms. Kidman is again, no Angelina Jolie, but then she is no Isabelle Huppert either. My wife is this remarkably strong woman. I mean, it is remarkable how she reacts when minor upheavals upset her course, and how she attempts to completely ignore them. Not take them in her stride mind you, but ignore. As if they never happened. It might have to do a thing or two with ego, but then it is impossible to let her talk on any of these upheavals, or reversals. She would go shopping, she would watch a movie, she would plain cook, she would read, she would work, she would do everything that she is supposed to do, but not offer you the slightest of reasons to hold her shoulder. She hates melodrama. One might call it a resolve to indulge in everyday activity. One might call it a resolve to move on. Or one might call it a fear from appearing weak. I respect that. Damn, I applaud that. If you understand and feel what I’m trying to convey, you know Becca. And you would know that there’s probably no other actress who could convey that everywoman feminine composure and pride better than Ms. Kidman. If I were to draw analogies for you, poor stupid analogies, this is how one would be – Angelina Jolie is Superman, Isabelle Huppert is the Batman, and Nicole Kidman, no she’s not Spiderman, but simply a strong woman. But a woman nonetheless.
        Becca and Howie attend a group therapy session. There we find couples all wanting, or not wanting, to move on, instead wanting to re-experience the pain. I don’t know, but for some people this pain might be a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to feel different from your neighbor. We all feel the need to be special. The couples there shed tears and reiterate their faith in God’s will. I will not reveal anymore, and leave you to discover this remarkable moment in the film, leftist by politics by emotion by religion. Ms. Kidman’s is one of the year’s most remarkable performances. A performance which might easily be mistaken for cynicism, but is at heart just about pure honesty and a lack of will to be diplomatic.
        What’s most interesting is that Howie, is just the kind for that group therapy session. He doesn’t have the courage to move on, as if by doing that they might be offending or not fulfilling their responsibility. It might appear to be honesty, and Mr. Eckhart’s Howie is as unassuming a guy as you would have a chance to meet. But then, is it honesty? I doubt it. The word that is coming to me is obligation. I don’t know. It is a contrast to Becca, and a contrast that is testing the marriage. A loss is a loss, but how we cope with it might often test the mutual respect in a relationship. It is a remarkably restrained performance. And in a remarkable moment, captured by Mr. Mitchell with fine subtlety and compassion, and just about the perfect reaction from Ms. Kidman, Becca finds Howie watching his son’s tape, and she closes her eyes in disappointment. It is, I tell you, one of those moments we come across at the movies that bore through your heart, and linger around long after you’re done with the movie, and several others. Here is a frame grab.

        And that is something Mr. Mitchell achieves, by asking his camera to simply follow the couple. Rabbit Hole is as much a love story as it is a family story, and by contrasting them within the same frame, or contrasting them through the script, he keenly asks us to observe this emotional distance. Of course, he is siding along Becca, and that is who he shares his politics with. Frame after frame after scene after scene, the orchestration of the sequence finds at its focus Becca, and tends to push Howie to the periphery. One might even claim that Rabbit Hole is about Becca, and more about how she perceives Howie than the other way round. The film focuses on her reactions (for they are uncommon in a world of standard-issue), brings to the fore in key frames, while asking of Howie to be merely offer the politically correct – weep at his son’s video or listen solemnly as others recount their four-year old grief or cut a concerned face.
        But then, amidst all this, there’s a slow-mo of the actual event. I wonder, aesthetically, if it makes sense in this film. I would leave you to discover it, dear reader, and argue about if it is slightly obligatory. Does Mr. Mitchell, for a moment, assume Howie’s heart? Is it an ill- conceived moment, out of tone, and terribly out of place, in a film that is otherwise devoid of all those Hollywood-poetic flourishes of fate? I mean, there’s a remarkable character within it whose comic provides for the film’s title, and yet the comic is nowhere about the central events. It is just another detail, of many other details. It is not a metaphor, as were rampant in Black Swan, but maybe an insight into these people. And when the final frame comes about, and a character’s voiceover speaks to us, we know which of the two have realized their folly. Rabbit Hole might even be called a stand-off. Pay close attention to the final contact made, and who initiates it, and the reaction. I think a special bond has been made.


Anonymous said...

I think someone watched 'reservation road' and 'revolutionary road' and decided to take another shot at 2011 Oscars. :D

man in the iron mask said...

That was cheeky!
But then, this shot here is coming from an altogether opposite area of the field.

Anonymous said...

That's true and I enjoyed the movie... BTW Why did you stop your Top Ten listing?

man in the iron mask said...

I haven't actually. It was just a gap for 2009. There was a whole lot of stuff happening at the personal front, and I hadn't watched enough movies to come out with a credible Top 10.

I will be, this time around, in the end of Feb.