Thursday, September 16, 2010

TIFF Review: "Rabbit Hole"

Monday night at the Toronto International Film Festival saw the world premiere of the new Nicole Kidman-driven film Rabbit Hole, also starring Aaron Eckhart and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. It's the story of a well-off couple who, eight months later, are about to hit a breaking point regarding their reaction to the death of their 4 year-old son. The boy was killed outside the family's house after the boy chased his dog out into the street and was hit by a teen aged driver.

  • For pictures from the premiere and to view the trailer, scroll to the bottom of this post.
  • Follow me on Twitter @blake_bell for more TIFF quick hits.

I'll put my cards on the table right up front. During a particular unpleasant period in my life (centered around 2007), John Cameron Mitchell's two films - Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus - were instrumental in keeping me from slipping into a greater sense of despair that I already thought was unimaginable. And it wasn't  just because I identified with the characters or the themes expressed in them in a way that young music fans of the 1980s identified with Morrissey's lyrics in The Smiths; it was because both films were phenomenal pieces of work, one man's vision completely realized in a way that few films do and make it above the waterline of public awareness.

Partly because of Mitchell's Woody Allen-like devotion to crafting all elements of those two films, and partly because of the time required to raise funds for such low-grossing films, Mitchell's output on film in the first decade of the new millennium has been unfortunately relegated to those two movies.

I'd have followed the man over a cliff with any project, so much so that I didn't even blink an eye when I hear he was getting a crack at something a wee bit more mainstream. Mitchell was hand-picked by producer Nicole Kidman to direct Rabbit Hole which is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire. I figured the greater the name Mitchell receives for himself, the more likely he'll get to finance another Hedwig or Shortbus.

That may still come true, but imagine my disappointment at the Visa Screening Room (i.e. the Elgin Theatre) on Monday night as I watched (what one reviewer called) an "admirable" movie, yet one bereft of almost any unique element bestowed on its story, characters, or delivery. For once, in my TIFF Reviews, I'm going to move my experiences at the premiere to the bottom of this post because I don't want people to think they influenced my opinion of the film (which they didn't - nothing could have rendered me desireless to see a Mitchell film send him rocketing to a higher platform of marketability for his works). Let's get right into my concerns with the work itself.

The Review (spoilers)
  • The film begins eight months into their mourning period, husband Howie Corbett (Eckhart's character) aware that he and his wife, Becca (played by Kidman) are "in status" but doesn't see the pathway out; Becca about to veer very close to a cliff with a long drop. After Becca rejects group therapy as an option, husband and wife take different journeys that converge at the end to pull them through to the next phase of their grief. Howie ponders having an affair. Becca incites a relationship with the teen aged boy, Jason, who ran down her son, and also trips into deeper conflict with her family. Her wayward sister has been knocked up, and her mother (played by Dianne Wiest) draws unappreciated comparisons between the early death of her son (Becca's brother, who overdosed on recreational drugs) and Becca's tragedy.
I Loved:
  • Very little about this movie (explanation below).
  • Jason's comic book. In a movie with very few unique ideas layered in, the one element that stood out was the inventiveness of the comic book (entitled "Rabbit Hole") that the boy who ran down the Corbetts' infant son gives to Becca. We see early in the movie how Jason meticulously hand-crafts the center-spread and, while a bit crude, it is the most compelling emotional piece in the whole movie. I'd rather have seen a movie based on the story in the comic book than what was offered on screen.
I Liked:
  • John Cameron Mitchell's direction. Not that I doubted Mitchell's ability to adapt his comparatively "flamboyant" directing style to this low-key material (there are plenty of moments in even Hedwig where the effects of isolation and withering pain of regret are deeply moving and quietly delivered). The pace of the movie, given the dreariness of the subject matter, moves along quite well, and how Mitchell slowly unveils the comic book also shows his deft touch. Kidman obviously saw Mitchell's acumen for quiet, tender scenes in his earlier movies and Mitchell adds his stamp on the direction without indulging himself once by standing out ahead of the material.
It Lacked:
  • Originality in the source material. The horror slowly began to creep over me as each minute passed that there wasn't going to be one interesting or unique facet of this story that seemingly wouldn't fit the textbook telling of a "loss of child" story. While watching, I had difficultly believing that this material won a Pulitzer Prize for how it handled its subject matter - oh, it's all very proper, and you are challenged to not say "well, that's the reality of that experience, isn't it?" I sat there mesmerized by the thought that either there wasn't another play that could have been nominated for a Pulitzer that year, or that this was the first story ever told about parents' reaction to the death of a child...the very first.
  • Unique or interesting emotional moments. Unless you're the TV show 24, you as a writer are compressing time into a 2-hour period where you have to decide on pivotal emotional moments to put on display that will make a viewer see an age-old story/theme in a light that they haven't thought of before. In this film, almost every moment chosen is so "Loss-of-a-Child 101" that you're stunned the writer chose them as a way to reach for a deep emotional response. For example, Howie is seen by Becca looking at the video of his son and...that's it. Moment ends - the absolute expected response. Howie also considers having an affair with another parent who's lost a child...but he decides against it. Not a slight hint in the script of this being delivered with any unique spin, or even engaging dialogue (out of Eckhart's mouth comes the words "I love my wife" - end of conflict, very cookie-cutter). Becca is in a grocery store and sees a mother having a difficult conversation with her child. Guess what's going to happen? Becca inappropriately approaches, as if she's never been in a grocery story in 8 months or has seen a mother and child interact. What would have been interested is to see Kidman's character attempt to repress the urge to interfere and have that emotional manifest itself in a way that would give Kidman something challenging to do.
  • Emotional honesty. All along the story, when a moment arises where the choice is presented between a cliche and the willingness to make something unique out of a character's reaction to a circumstance, we get the cliche, something absolutely expected. What truly disappoints then is the inference that I as the viewer am supposed to imbue the film with my own sense of empathy or identification to give weight to the film's emotional resonance. That's a form of cinematic manipulation that is far below the standards of all the stakeholders involved. It's "a bitch" when you're dealing with source material that's standing on a Pulitzer platform, but I should be able to come into a movie without a single relating experience and have the story-writer earn my emotional response by making narrative choices that go beyond the cliche and make me look at a story (told many times) in a new light because of some new insight brought in by the writer. Otherwise, watching a documentary would produce better results. This movie has none of that. I was shocked that the movie had not one moment that I couldn't predict what was going to happen in the following moments, since I'd seen it happen so many times before in the same fashion.
  • "Likability" for the lead characters. Was there anything redeemable about Kidman's character throughout, other than the manipulative nature of the story to say that you have to empathize with her or you're an uncaring, bad person? Echkart's character was more likable because he stood in contrast to this harsh bitch who was annoying when wallowing in her self-pity. He was borderline buffoonish, and is allegedly redeemable because he didn't jump in the sack with Sandra Oh's character (I'll give him credit for that, being married to such an unresponsive ice queen who admonishes him for daring to even think about physical intimacy after eight months). Of course, when he tars and feathers the teenager who ran over his kid, he loses a lot of that and, much like the rest of the film, he doesn't earn it back; you as the viewer are just expected to give it to him. I don't have to "like" a character in a movie, but I do have to respect them for the strength of their convictions (even if I don't agree with them, or they're struggling with them).  I also wasn't enamored with the writing for the supporting cast either. Dianne Wiest plays it dutifully pitiful, and the sister is dutifully wayward, but we are manipulated into "liking" them only because they stand in contrast to the hammer that Kidman's character bashed them all with, not because those characters redeem themselves on their own two feet.
  • Better acting. It's fascinating to watch an industry convince itself that the actors involved in an "admirable" project ("admirable" being code for "a worthy subject matter, rendered in a banal fashion, but told inoffensively") are giving "career-defining" performances solely based on the subject matter. Eckhart's always going to come across as a "affable" actor but how different is his character here from his character in that god-awful film he did with Jennifer Aniston, Love Happens. He's really just the same character just emoting at a different degree than the previous version. And Kidman fails to truly make us care for her character beyond the attempts of the material to manipulate us because we should care for a mother who lost her child. There's not a single reaction or emotional moment by Kidman in this movie that ventures beyond the expected that makes the viewer see her grief in any new light. Her conversations on the park bench with the teen aged driver were opportunities to do something different - and no, not over-the-top melodramatic flourishes - but building up to a cry-on-queue is perhaps all the material allows for. I doubt the blame should rest to heavily on these actors' shoulders. There's not much to do here beyond cry a lot, or look sad a lot, or get angry and yell some; again, all in an "Acting Responses 101" cliched manner.
Final Analysis: C (or 2 stars out of 5)
  • Reaction to this film is going to be utterly fascinating. It's a morose enough subject, in morose times, that unless the studio's marketing machine can convince an audience that there's a bevy of Oscars to be had here, Kidman's track record of "late" is not that of a star able to pull in heavy box office numbers on her name alone, and Eckhart's in the same boat. We're already starting to see that dichotomy; the initial reviews clearly were trying hard not to appear to harsh because of the subject matter, because the film is so "inoffensively well done", and now some mentions of the movie are discussing whether it's lightweight fluff or actual Oscar material. Sometimes Hollywood loves to see a once-acknowledged actress come "back into the fold" (Kidman won for "The Hours" in 2002), but if she does receive a nomination, I have to believe it will be token at best, and a dismal sign of the lack of quality roles for women this year (something I don't believe, but Hollywood subjects women to a different standard, I find, than men when it comes to scratching the surface to look at strong female performances that are out there if they don't feature a name actress).
  • John Cameron Mitchell will walk away from this with an enhanced reputation as a director capable of playing "with the big boys and girls" so that's a good thing.
  • I relate with this sentiment, from one of the discussions in the press of the movie - "There was widespread shock among New York theater wags when it won the Pulitzer Prize". I too was left stunned that so little was earned in this movie and so much was asked and taken for granted. You leave with the impression that the story was so reverent to its subject matter than it decided not to take a single chance to create anything unique to say about the subject matter.
The scene at the premiere
  • What a difference seeing a premiere at the Visa Screening Room (i.e., Elgin Theatre) makes compared to, well, anywhere else. If someone tries to sell you on this being the ideal place to see a movie, they are lying to you. Because of the height of the screen, obstructed seats abounded on the ground level and at the sides. The Ryerson Theatre, while not having ample leg room, is far superior a venue. Not as ornate in design, but then I'm staring at the screen, not at the trappings.
  • Outside the theatre, either the pretension of the "stars" or the "prestige" of the venue kept fans at a much greater distance then at somewhere like the Ryerson Theatre. Forget about pictures or autographs or any even distance interaction.
  • Even the Festival itself landed as elitist and segregationist, separating the public into the "regular" Visa credit cardholder line (god forbid where you were asked to stand if you paid in cash) and those who had a Visa gold, platinum, or infinite card. Of course, the Festival doesn't tell you to bring such a card and surprises you with the two line format, but then that's what elitism is all about, no? You only find out you're a second class citizen when it's too late and you can't do anything about it.
  • And for such an expensive ticket price, were viewers treated to a Q&A with its stars? No, I guess Kidman considers herself beyond such interactions. Her and hubbie Keith Urban were out the door to the after-party before the lights went up.
  • The best part of the entire experience? John Cameron Mitchell stayed behind to informally greet friends and acquaintances, and whomever wandered up to say hello. So, in the end, I did get to shake his hand and thank him for Hedwig and Shortbus, and he did seem genuinely pleased to hear about the impact he had on yet another person's life with his work. Not all is swallowed up into the Belly of the Beast, so that's a good news story to report on.
Photos from the showing
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  • Click on the pictures below to enlarge.
Outside the premiere on Yonge St.

John Cameron Mitchell after the showing.

Mitchell and actor Miles Teller, who played Jason,
the teenager at the center of the tragedy.

Scenes from the film


  1. Um just because you hated this movie doesn't mean you have to attack the people who liked it. So far the film is getting a lot of fantastic reviews (and strangely, most of those reviews say that it is great because it's not manipulative). I've only seen two negative reviews so far, yours and another one (out of about 30 reviews). I'm looking forward to this film.

  2. I guess you were not invited to the Q&A that happened at the second screening, eh? sour grapes much

    And if the industry feel like heralding the film as the second coming, great.

    As for wanting a redeemable thing about its character or the need for you to care for them, what are you 10? You are an adult, people don't need to be REDEEMABLE for you to see and empathise with them, if you can't then it is less about them and more about the cold stone you call a HEART.