If you go to John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole expecting another Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) or Shortbus (2006), chances are you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you dig beneath the surface of this domestic drama about a couple dealing—or not dealing—with the death of their young son, you may surprise yourself with how similar the three films are in terms of their humanity and the way Mitchell handles the material and his actors. No, you’d never mistake this for the earlier films, but down deep, it’s just not that different.
Where those earlier movies dealt with characters who were in some kind of despair that was inherent in their natures, Rabbit Hole deals with characters in despair because their previously very normal lives have been turned into something foreign and inhospitable to them by an event. Even that proves not to be quite as it seems as the film explores Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart), whose lives may have only been normal at some considerable expense and effort in the first place. Granted, this material is inherent in David Lindsay-Abaire’s play and screenplay, but the recognition of it by Mitchell is perhaps what drew him to Rabbit Hole in the first place. It’s certainly what allowed him to tap into that essence.
Don’t misunderstand, this is not Hedwig or Shortbus. This is a very different proposition. There’s no getting away from the fact that Rabbit Hole is a domestic drama. It is, however, a very fine domestic drama that avoids the pitfall of becoming maudlin and offers many surprising little twists along the way. It doesn’t trade in sentimentality—in fact, it often eschews it altogether—and its assaults on the tear-ducts are so subtle that they often hit you before it registers that they’re there at all.
The film often veers toward the unusual, especially in its depiction of Becca’s relationship with Jason (Miles Teller), the young man who accidentally ran over her son. If this odd relationship feels ever so slightly familiar to you, that’s probably because it’s not all that far removed from the relationship between Hedwig (Mitchell) and Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) in Hedwig, though the dynamic is different. There’s also something refreshingly human about it, and much the same can be said of Howie’s relationship with Gaby (Sandra Oh).
What most distinguishes the film, though, are the performances that Mitchell gets out of his cast. Yes, Nicole Kidman is remarkable and she fully deserved her Oscar nomination. (She perhaps deserved the award, too, but that’s another question.) That said, it would be a mistake to overlook Eckhart, Oh and Dianne Wiest—and perhaps it would be an even bigger error to neglect Teller’s Jason. He manages to turn what could have been an impossible role believable. Don’t leave it too long to see Rabbit Hole. Its box office has not been exciting, so catch it while you can. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use and language.