‘Rabbit Hole’ smart, complex, worth seeing

Posted Jan. 06, 2011, at 6:35 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:50 p.m.

In theaters

RABBIT HOLE, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his play, 91 minutes, rated PG-13.

The aftereffects of death are explored in raw detail in John Cameron Mitchell’s “Rabbit Hole,” a dark movie about a couple coping with loss — and each other — in the wake of their 4-year-old son’s sudden death.

Though eight months have passed since their child was run over by a car, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are nowhere close to coming to terms with it in spite of (or because of) the surface adjustments they’ve made to their new routines.

Becca gave up her job when her son died and now she takes care of the house. She does laundry. She cleans. She gardens, cooks and visits with her mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest, one of the best reasons to see the movie). And she hides from her neighbors as much as possible, preferring to be left alone to complete small, manageable tasks that help to distract her from what she refuses to face.

As for Howie, his routine remains somewhat the same, but like Becca, it’s all surface. He goes to the office. He comes home to have dinner with his wife. They have meaningless conversations about everything trite and trivial. Their sex lives are toast. But at night, when Howie believes Becca is nowhere around, he finds remnants of his son’s life in the home movies he keeps on his cell phone.

Knowing they must face their son’s loss if they’re ever to move forward as a couple, they start attending “The Group,” which is made up of a group of others caught in a seemingly bottomless malaise of mourning. Howie is for it — he knows they can’t go on like this and initially tries to make the best of it. But for cynical Becca, whose coldness is enough to fan the tears off the glum faces surrounding her, her frustration with these people is palpable, so much so that she isn’t above snapping at them when they start sharing their feelings, which to her sounds like whining.

In spite of this ongoing grimness, “Rabbit Hole” isn’t without a sense of humor. The film, after all, comes from Mitchell, who directed the beautifully bizarre “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” What he understands is that death, as cruel as it can be, isn’t without awkwardness or absurdity for those left behind to pick up the pieces. For Howie, he finds his reprieve in Gaby (Sandra Oh), another member of the group who for years has been trying to heal from her own loss. Just before one session, each decides to get high on pot, which leads to an inappropriate (but very funny) fallout since everything around them now has become a drug-induced joke.

Becca shares a common bond with her mother, Nat, who also lost a son. Together they work through their own issues, often laughing because what else is there to do? Nat knows that she will forever grieve her son’s death, but with the passing of time, she also knows that her grief has shifted into something she can deal with.

It’s here that Becca begins to move forward, but is it too late? Her marriage is dangerously close to collapsing. For additional support, she turns to the young man (Miles Teller) who ran over her child. Their conversations lead to more healing for Becca, but additional tension at home when Howie learns that, in his eyes, she’s essentially “sleeping” with the enemy by befriending the young man.

With so many tricky undercurrents to manage, “Rabbit Hole” could have caved beneath their weight and gone into safe, predictable directions that would have been easier to navigate. But it doesn’t. It’s smarter and more complex than that. It taps into the human condition, finds rooms filled with darkness and fearlessly turns on the lights. With Kidman and Eckhart both nailing difficult roles, “Rabbit Hole,” when it opens nationally, is well worth a look. Grade: A-

On DVD and Blu-ray Disc

THE LAST EXORCISM, directed by Daniel Stamm, written by Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland, 90 minutes, rated PG-13.

Not surprisingly, Daniel Stamm’s “The Last Exorcism” has nothing on “The Exorcist,” but for a while, it does have something going for it. It builds suspense nicely, it takes its time to reveal its horror, and when it does offer it up, Stamm succeeds in unnerving you with what unfolds onscreen.

And then comes the ending.

It’s such a rip-off of the movie that inspired it, it would ruin it for audiences if it were revealed — but when it hits, it’s tough not to feel cheated by it. The good news? When I first saw it, the people at my screening seemed to be digging the movie until that moment.

Based on Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland’s script, “The Last Exorcism” is shot like a documentary, but it isn’t a documentary — just as this year’s “Paranormal Activity 2” wasn’t a documentary. It’s about a fraudulent evangelical preacher named Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who lives in Louisiana and has charmed the locals into believing that he can perform exorcisms.

The irony is that Marcus doesn’t believe in God — he’s lost his faith. For him, performing exorcisms is something close to performance art. If he can make his subjects believe that he has pulled the devil out of them, Cotton believes he’s done his job and has earned his pay.

Then along comes Nell (Ashley Bell), a sweet young woman who really is possessed. Her father (Louis Hertham) and bitter brother, Caleb (Caleb Landry Jones), know it, but initially Cotton thinks he’s just doing another routine job. Since he has decided that this will be his last exorcism, he allows a camera crew to come along with him and film the event. It’s their footage we see in the movie. Through them, what Cotton wants to show to the world is that exorcisms are just a load of hooey.

Too bad he doesn’t have a clue what awaits him in Nell.

After forcing her to undergo a staged exorcism that includes plenty of praying, Bibles pressed to the meat of Nell’s forehead and even a crucifix that heaves puffs of smoke when Cotton presses a hidden button, he takes his money, checks on Nell, who now seems to be cured, and then leaves the scene. Trouble is, when he and the film crew drive away, they start to question certain events that didn’t feel right to them while they were at the house. An interview with a boy at a restaurant causes them to rush back. Could it be that Nell’s father is raping her?

At this point, the movie boils with energy. When they return to the house, the walls are covered in a hive of satanic hoodoo. And then there’s Nell herself, who does a little crab walk, speaks in tongues, slaughters animals at will and bends her body in unnatural angles. Since you like her and do feel something for her, the movie’s success at once relies on putting her through hell — and then pulling her out of it.

Cotton and company rise to the occasion, a real exorcism commences, and then the movie takes an abrupt turn for the worse.

But enough said about that and the film — anything more would give too much away. Still, here’s the thing: Movies are like a feast — and people always remember the dessert. With this movie, the unfortunate news is that they’ll remember the ending, which is a shame because what comes before it is well acted, suspenseful and well done. Grade: B-

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and archive of movie reviews. Smith’s film reviews appear Mondays in Lifestyle, and his video movie previews appear Wednesdays in the Lifestyle section of bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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