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Sad face: Oscar nominee Kidman in Rabbit Hole.

The Mysteries of Sorrow

By Laura Leon

Rabbit Hole

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

Nowadays you can’t swing a cat without hitting upon some fragment of the grief industry. Talk shows, self-help books and countless magazine articles profess to help you find closure, but in reality perpetuate the idea that you can’t live with grief as part of your overall being. I mean, that would be like admitting failure, right? I was afraid that Rabbit Hole, directed by John Cameron Mitchell and based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsey-Abaire, would be this year’s version of parents grieving all over themselves and others over the untimely death of a little one. Oh, God, did I really want to sit through this exercise in emoting for the Oscar?

Happily, Rabbit Hole is nothing at all like a particularly maudlin episode of Oprah. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are good-looking suburbanites, living in a lovely home above the Hudson, and ensconced in an eerie silence that gradually reveals itself to be the aftermath of their 5-year-old son Danny’s death. Howie tries to cope through group therapy, a process that Becca finds altogether creepy. He takes her rejection of this potential lifeline as yet another proof that she’s trying to “erase” Danny (he takes exception when she finally takes the boy’s finger paintings off the fridge). She bristles when her mother (Dianne Wiest) compares the loss of her son Arthur to Becca’s, caustically pointing out that Danny got hit by a car, whereas Arthur was a heroin addict who OD’d. Becca meets the news of her sister Izzy’s (Tammy Blanchard) pregnancy with forced enthusiasm, going as far as to offer her all of Danny’s duds, which Izzy gently rejects. Howie, at least, has the outlet of work and squash buddies, but he ultimately finds comfort in getting stoned with Gabby (Sandra Oh), another support-group parent. Becca tries to return to her former coworkers at Sotheby’s, only to find that they, like everybody else, have moved on; she resorts to reaching out to the teenager (Miles Teller) who drove the car that hit Danny.

Rabbit Hole is muted in tone, allowing us to watch characters try to make sense of why they are alive, why they are doing routine things on a daily basis. The fact that one of Becca’s closest friends still hasn’t called, eight months after Danny’s death, is telling, as it reminds us how death and tragedy often cast a pall over our relationship with the affected. Becca’s mom represents the flip side, grief stalkers who profess to want to help by sharing in your sorrow, but who really just get off on the ride. Kidman is extraordinary, soft and brittle at the same time, fiercely protective of her own sorrow now as she probably was of her child when he was alive. A group scene in which one couple rationalize their daughter’s death as God just needing another angel is brought to a stunning, if strangely funny, conclusion when Becca blurts out, “Then why didn’t he just make one?” Eckhart is equally compelling, a man whose joy has been eradicated, and who simply cannot find a way to fight through the suffering. The movie’s most chilling scene has Howie explaining to some potential homebuyers how Danny’s room, which is completely charming for a little boy, haunts him with the deceased’s presence.

At times I didn’t buy that Becca came from the same background as her working-class mother and sister, but ultimately, I accepted it, as Becca, and perhaps Howie, seem to have escaped their pasts and entered into what was supposed to have been the happily ever after: the beautiful house, the great careers, a lovely son. Very much like Little Children, Rabbit Hole casts a light on what used to be Cheever territory, the hidden sorrows and great malaise that sometimes exist beneath the polished surfaces of suburban life. The park where Becca meets the teenager seems bereft and lonely. The library where they first come face to face is old and depressing, contrasted to nice effect when Becca, out of her earth-toned Eileen Fishers and wearing a chic black suit, heads to the city to try to reconnect with the living. The movie shimmers in sadness, but, with its great and unexpected humor, it is also grounded in an affirmation of life—even if it offers no blueprints to follow.

 

No Place Like Home

Somewhere

Directed by Sofia Coppola

To say that Sofia Coppola’s latest cinematic meditation, Somewhere, goes nowhere, isn’t quite fair; but then again, it’s not quite fair to audiences to have a film concentrate on near motionless close-ups to so little effect. It opens with a car going in circles, and ends with a car being driven straight to . . . some desolate patch of desert roadway, where it ends in a minimalist gesture that would be an embarrassment for a college film-class project. Centered on a few weeks in the laid-back life of Johnny Marko (Stephen Dorff), Somewhere is reminiscent of Coppola’s breakthrough, Lost in Translation, but even more stripped-down and sparing of dialogue.

Johnny, who is a celebrity of some sort, is staying at the famed Chateau Marmont, where he is recuperating from a broken arm and going to parties in the rooms of other guests. You can tell he’s a celebrity by the way people talk to him and women come on to him. And by how his phone keeps ringing with people telling him where to go, and how he will be taken there. The vagueness about Johnny’s profession—he looks like a fading but still handsome grunge guitarist—gives the film’s first sequences a dry effervescence. This is capped at a hotel party, where Johnny chases a pain killer with a highball and a cigarette, and is fawned over by a younger man who wants to know about his acting technique: who he studied with, does he do Method. Johnny replies in a mumble: “I have an agent who sends me on auditions.”

Just as Johnny’s laid-back, celebrity slacker lifestyle starts to wear out its hazy cocoon of booze and big-studio privilege, his 11-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), comes for an extended visit. She accompanies him on a press junket to Milan, and becomes his best gal pal. This is territory Coppola knows well, having spent much of her youth in the company of her filmmaker father, Francis, and yet Cleo is simply appealing without creating a strong impression. She’s competent and apparently not spoiled—and not all that much younger-looking than the Hollywood nymphets who are part of the free-wheeling Hollywood lifestyle.

The film is delicately aware that Cleo is bordering on the girlfriend role to her father, who doesn’t seem motivated to move beyond one-night stands and casual flings. His first day with her comes after an evening watching twin blonde pole dancers in his room; the next morning he’s watching his daughter ice skating in almost the exact same pleated miniskirt as the sporty pole dancers. Not much is made of this, or of the fact that Johnny seems to be a genuinely nice guy, albeit a little numbed by privilege; this makes the ending a mere curlicue dabbed onto a vague and languorous portrait.

—Ann Morrow

 

Sadder face: Oscar nominee Williams in Blue Valentine.

Life Lies Bleeding

Blue Valentine

Directed by Derek Cianfrance

It seems to me highly unlikely that director Derek Cianfrance is the type to screen his movies for test audiences. Trained under such visionary outsiders as Stan Brakhage, Cianfrance is being touted as a young auteur. Perhaps, deservedly. His student films were received enthusiastically and his first submissions to Sundance were equally, if not more highly, praised. And Blue Valentine shows an almost astoundingly sure directorial hand.

Nevertheless, I’m curious about how the movie might test—in part, because Blue Valentine had me wondering about why, exactly, it is that I go to movies in the first place. This just might be very high praise. But I’m not sure, yet.

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams star as Dean and Cindy, a young married couple. Though they are living in Pennsylvania, their lives seem lifted right out of Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey, circa The River. And though, at movie’s end, there is some ambiguity about their fate, the feeling of the flick is that of a postmortem: Their relationship is presented in a series of time-jumping vignettes, a collage that, to me, suggested an indie version of the bulletin boards used in forensic dramas. The body’s on the slab, so to speak. It’s an up-close, handheld, “Then I got Mary pregnant, and, man, that was all she wrote.”

Gosling and Williams are, both, just remarkable. Cianfrance’s intimate direction allows for an incredibly direct experience of these talented actors. I find Gosling an intensely compelling and watchable young actor (more so, for what it’s worth, than Christian Bale). And, yet, in Blue Valentine, Williams is maybe even better. Her performance is so unaffected and nuanced as to seem . . . well, real.

And there’s the rub. Blue Valentine is a completely believable depiction of a working-class American marriage. Two likable, though damaged, people come together in hope and love and admiration and optimism and idealism, only to find that the world devours those things in quantities even robust relationships can’t always reliably produce.

Blue Valentine isn’t a tearjerker. It’s too simple and too recognizable for that. It doesn’t take the viewer (or didn’t take this viewer, anyway), far enough out of him or herself to allow that kind of sad abandon. So, at skillful movie’s end, you’re left with a kind of fond and fatalistic voyeuristic depression.

I kinda wonder what demo is looking for that.

—John Rodat

 

A Job of Work

The Mechanic

Directed by Simon West

“2 more crappy trailers and then STATHAM!!!!” “Enough with the wordless self-doubt. KILL SOMETHING AL READY.” “Damn, Statham is thinking the FUCK outta this conundrum.”

After following Patton Oswalt’s hilarious live Tweets from a screening of the latest Jason Statham vehicle, one couldn’t help wondering if there was any reason left to see The Mechanic.

The laconic lead of Snatch, The Transporter, Transporter 2, Transporter 3, Crank, and Crank: High Voltage is the action hero for our time. His screen persona is smarter than Sly, Arnold and Chuck combined, and, even better, he’s as reserved as Clint’s Man With No Name. Seriously: Who has time for the likes of Arnold’s lumbering, deadly dull one- liners, or Mel’s incessant ravings? Plus, Statham’s British: After a decade of international fuck-ups, the age of the American action hero is dead. (Don’t believe me? They just cast another Englishman as Superman.)

The Mechanic is a remake of a classic ‘70s Charles Bronson flick about a hit man (a “mechanic”) training a younger dude in the craft. As you’d expect, the remake is more brutal and more sentimental than the original. Statham is (of course) the hit man, Ben Foster is the eager young recruit, Donald Sutherland is Statham’s mentor figure and Tony Goldwyn is the suit who must be dealt with.

Statham is exactly who you expect him to be, ruthless and efficient. Sutherland is charmingly world-weary. Goldwyn is corporate soullessness embodied. Foster, however, is mostly lost. Not as lost as he was as the conflicted Iraq War vet in The Messenger, but definitely unconvincing. The actor who stole 30 Days of Night and 3:10 to Yuma still can’t get his mojo back.

Having directed actioners ranging from the baroque (Con Air) to the cartoonish (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), fimmaker Simon West brings a relative restraint that is admirable. If one is feeling generous—and why not?—West can even be forgiven the film’s one idiotic video game-style killing sequence. (Oh, for the days of simply wiring stuntmen with exploding squibs.)

The surprise twists that ended the Bronson version on a pleasingly sour note have been altered, as you’d expect. Like Bronson, however, Statham admirably goes about his job—in character, and as an actor.

—Shawn Stone


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