One of my favorite films of the last few years is John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole. With a lesser script and lesser talented involved, the story of parents grieving the death of their young son could have become a maudlin, treacly affair. But with director Mitchell, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his own play) and actors Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Sandra Oh and Miles Teller giving great performances, it's an understated masterpiece that hits all the right notes and packs an emotional wallop.
I've seen it twice already. Which is two times more than my wife -- until yesterday.
Although I've told her it's great, I had not been pressuring her to see it. You see, we have a two-year-old son, and I thought Rabbit Hole's death of a four-year-old boy -- off-screen and in the past though it is -- might be too intense for her. So with it waiting patiently for her in our Netflix instant queue, I thought I'd let her come to it at her own speed -- which she did yesterday afternoon, while I was at a 1:45 show of The Master at the Arclight in Hollywood.
Our son had a very long nap yesterday -- so long, in fact, that she was prompted to go check on him during the movie, for reasons that are quite understandable given its subject matter. That woke him up, so she didn't get to finish the viewing. When I started feeding him dinner in the other room at around 6, she decided to put on the last 20 minutes.
But we don't have a door you can close to separate where he eats from the living room. It's around a corner, but that does nothing for the noise pollution. And with this close proximity, and the fact that she usually feeds him dinner, she couldn't help reacting to the typical ebbs and flows of his eating experience -- him shouting that he wanted to get down, him throwing food on the floor, that kind of thing. (I'm surprised he doesn't starve himself, since he barely eats anything these days.)
Having this racket going on while she tried to absorb the emotional climax of the movie? That just wouldn't do.
At first I suggested to her that she wait until after he was asleep. She emphatically told me that she wanted to continue now, and that she would not be distracted.
Remembering how I'd gotten misty-eyed during the final scene -- both times I've watched it -- I decided I had to take matters into my own hands.
My son rejected half of the cheese I gave him and almost all of the tamalitos (a small Mexican dish that sort of resembles ravioli), so it was on to the yogurt phase of dinner. And I decided he could sit and eat yogurt outside just as well as he could sit and eat yogurt in his high chair.
So we relocated to some lawn furniture outside, where he ate a few more bites of the yogurt, while letting most of the rest of it dribble down both of our clothing. Seriously, I don't know how this kid isn't starving.
Then he wandered up to the back door and shouted "OPEN THE DOOR!"
I knew I had about ten more minutes of the film still playing inside, so I used whatever was available to distract him. I got some good mileage out of the washing machine, even though I worry about him breaking it by pushing all the buttons, and even though the door smacked against the back door to our kitchen every time he opened it -- another sound I worried might summon her from the couch. I eventually took him away and played "Ready Set Go" with him a couple times -- a game that basically involves me saying "Ready ... Set ... Gooooooo!" and then running just behind him to some point maybe 30 feet away. And then repeating in the other direction.
When I heard my wife in the kitchen, and came into view just in time to see her going for the box of tissues, I knew that my maneuver had paid off.
But I started to wonder afterward whether I had done the thing that was best for her, or best for me. Clearly, I saw it as my responsibility to create for her the conditions necessary to appreciate the ending of Rabbit Hole with as few distractions as possible. But was this for her benefit, or mine?
In other words, did I care that she got a clean viewing of Rabbit Hole so that she could fully appreciate a great film that she may see only this one time, or did I want her to love it so that loving it would be something that we could share? Less magnanimously, the second point could be distilled as follows: Did I merely want my own recommendation of Rabbit Hole to be validated, to support the fact that my own recommendations can be trusted?
It's an interesting question. It makes me wonder how much of watching good movies is about just watching good movies, and how much is about validating tastes. As a critic (out of work though I may be), I clearly want other people to get the most out of movies I recommend to them. Watch enough movies I've recommended in a setting where you can't give them your full attention, and perhaps you start to trust my recommendations less. And if you start doubting a critic's recommendations, it's a bit like wondering whether your mechanic is really capable of replacing your transmission, whether your surgeon is actually capable of fixing your balky knees.
With my wife, the point is probably moot anyway. Even though she doesn't seek out movies the way she used to and the way I still do, one thing we've always had in common is our tastes about what makes a good movie. Even if Rabbit Hole hadn't been a slam dunk for her, she wouldn't have held it against me.
However, in the case of Rabbit Hole, I think my more magnanimous motivation for moving my son outdoors wins out. It's such a good movie that I simply didn't want the experience to be tainted for her. It's the kind of movie that puts a spring in your step, even though it's full of sadness -- just because it reminds you what a film can accomplish by taking a simple, no-fuss approach to good material. (In that sense, it is a sign of incredible maturity for Mitchell, whose previous films -- Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus -- are heavy on style and artifice, and still quite good.)
Oh, and having a cast of actors at the top of their game doesn't hurt.