A portrait of a couple coping with their son’s death, Rabbit Hole is a parallel universe of grief and self-censure. For John Cameron Mitchell it’s worlds away.
Through The Looking Glass by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
You would have thought if John Cameron Mitchell was going to pick a Pulitzer Prize winning play, he would have gone for Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife bedazzled by the potentially high camp twin headlights of Nazis and transvestites. But no, he chose David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, a suburban coming-to-terms tragedy about Becca and Howie Corbett whose four-year-old son is killed in a traffic accident. It’s a personal topic for John Cameron Mitchell who lost a brother of the same age and saw his family blown apart, but it’s also a faithful adaptation, the screenplay penned by Lindsay-Abaire himself, and a complete departure from the director’s previous celluloid extravaganzas. So is the gay rebel playing it straight or has the eternal adolescent finally grown up?
Rabbit Hole begins with Becca planting a row of flowers in her herbaceous border, a fragile life brought into existence only to be haplessly trodden on. It’s eight months since their son Danny died, running onto the road outside their house after their dog Taz, and a neighbour from beyond the picket fence invites them to dinner, beckoning them into the land of living. But despite the gritted civility and muted grief, they’re not yet ready for small talk or laughter. They need the respectful confines of group therapy – a chance to listen, to talk, to heal. But when talk turns to God needing another angel, Becca flares up and they walk out. To remain shades among the living.
For each of them grief is a solitary journey marked by different mindsets and timelines. For Howie the house is almost a sacred relic, scarred with cherished reminders of Danny – fingerprints, videoclips and fridge paintings, but for Becca everything is a painful reminder of her son and her grief, from dog to house to husband. Even if she rips through her son’s closet quick as a band-aid, her emotional sores won’t heal, picked at by her sister’s unborn baby or Howie’s suggestion of another child. Her family don’t help, Becca’s mother uncomfortably comparing Danny to her junkie son Arthur who overdosed. And Becca’s social isolation is palpable in her awkwardness with her family – gifting Danny’s old clothes and a ridiculous bathroom set to grunge sister Izzy, whose little sister guilt makes her feel she doesn’t deserve her baby. Dianne Wiest steals every scene as Becca’s alcoholic mother, and it’s only when she describes her brick-in-a-pocket grief, almost finding pleasure in the pain as the last remnant of her son, that Becca starts to move on.
Their stasis in grief is certainly stylish, in their home of muted mid-tones in Desperate Housewives suburbia. And Becca’s costume variations on dull beige and prison grey might make you itch for something vulgarly fuchsia. But elegant as this aspirational couple are, their desperation is heavy and divisive, setting them off on different paths towards deliverance. With Nicole Kidman’s production company Blossom Films exec-producing, Becca’s sadness is perhaps the most prominent. And Kidman does her highly polished still-waters-run-anguished schtick very well indeed. But the heart is deceitful above all things and as Becca drops out of group, she sneaks out of the house and heads off to New York City or chases after Jason, the driver on that fateful day. Curiouser and curiouser this theme of chasing; just as Danny ran after his squirrel-chasing dog Becca runs after Jason like a white rabbit down a hole. Like the myth of Orpheus, this through-the-looking-glass grief is not only a reflection of normal life with all meaning erased, but a descent into an underworld of pain from which to return if not with their son, then at least with a pain-free memory of him.
But despite this crisp veneer of mourning, there’s a queer feel to Rabbit Hole too. Maybe it’s the virulent anti-God railing, the “sadistic prick who treats you like shit” or the elephant-in-the-room family awkwardness. But perhaps most of all, it’s in the anarchic pleasure of misbehaving. Howie’s doped-up group session is the funniest scene in the film, as he and Gaby giggle their way through another heartfelt outpouring. And when Becca reproaches a supermarket mom who won’t buy her kid candy, her bitch-slap is glorious cinematic vengeance against the conservative norm, its everyday violence oscillating wildly. And in many ways Rabbit Hole is a war movie, Howie and Becca licking each other’s wounds after each daily sortie into no-man’s land.
It’s a violence they occasionally turn on each other. In one dazzling argument – a ferocious game of who can blame themselves the most, who left the gate unlatched, who’s erasing their son. But as they sell up, with Howie finding brief solace in pot and a parking lot affair with Gaby, and Becca finding comfort in her painfully honest talks with J about guilt, comic books and parallel universes where there’s a happy version of her making cookies, for both of them there’s light and hope at the end of the rabbit hole. It’s a well signposted redemption – Becca overcoming her wounded grief-stricken pride and finally making that call to Debbie or even making a joke about drugging their for once quiet dog. And in the final coda, as they envision a future of feigned interest in others, the painful pleasure of talking about Danny and perhaps reconciliation, it’s their togetherness holding hands into the future that provides Rabbit Hole‘s most powerful resolution.
As Gaby says, grief changes you. But Howie and Becca have survived together. And with great performances all round, Rabbit Hole is utterly enchanting. At times it reveals its stage production origins and it may even be too well scripted, leading you by the hand round every well-lit signpost. Nevertheless Rabbit Hole is a great addition to the already fertile canon of cinematic child loss, gently riffing on its themes of grief’s glass wall of mourning and irreparable identities. But perhaps what lifts Rabbit Hole out of the ground is its anarchic humour, playfully disrespectful and shockingly cathartic. And even if this is just a temporary rabbit hole for John Cameron Mitchell, it’s a satisfying break from wonderland.
Rabbit Hole is released on 4th February 2011 in the UK