I’ve been a tad grumpy lately, and for that I apologize. The crushing disappointment of the fall movie season got to me, but you know what? It’s Christmas, and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna let a few bad movies spoil my sunny disposition. There’s much to celebrate this week (besides the obvious), starting with the wide release of Darren Aronofsky’s beautiful and devastating “Black Swan.”
Also, in limited release, there’s “Rabbit Hole,” a low-profile domestic drama that may very well be the finest film I’ve seen all year. Great movies both, and perfect for a relaxing holiday weekend. “The fracturing of identity in response to psychological trauma” may not be the ideal Christmas theme, but whata ya gonna do?
As I read more about “Black Swan” and saw more previews, I started to become concerned that director Darren Aronofsky (of the great “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Wrestler”) had given in to the more self-indulgent tendencies that were on full display in “The Fountain,” his creative-but-alienating existential misfire.
“Black Swan” is the filmmaker’s borderline-experimental attempt to immerse the viewer in madness and, in effect, replicate the experience of complete mental collapse. Naturally such a film requires an intensely psychological approach, but to my surprise, Aronofsky keeps everything under control in the midst of absolute chaos, never allowing his wilder impulses to engulf the carefully structured narrative. This is the work of a master.
Natalie Portman (in what is undoubtedly the finest performance from any actor this year) plays Nina, a ballerina who lives in a constant state of stress with her seemingly unbalanced mother (Barbara Hershey). Nina strives for perfection in her craft, and when she is cast as the lead in her company’s production of “Swan Lake” — playing the dual role of the virginal White Swan and the seductive Black Swan — she thinks she has gotten her big chance.
But things start to go terribly, strangely wrong: The company’s sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) starts treating Nina like he’s a predator toying with prey. A colleague (Mila Kunis, in a breakout role), in subtle but important ways, seems to be trying to sabotage Nina’s success. Nina’s relationship with her mother begins to deteriorate. And then there’s the matter of the bizarre and unexplained lesions that keep appearing — and disappearing — on Nina’s body (Aronofsky has clearly been brushing up on his early Cronenberg). As she becomes more and more obsessed with her role in “Swan Lake” and self-perfection in general, Nina’s mind and body begin to fall apart.
Aronofsky’s style is perfectly suited to this content. He lends a dreamlike quality to the film, and the viewer is never quite sure if what they’re seeing is real, imagined, or some bizarre mix of the two. But here, the use of the unreliable narrator is not in the service of some banal plot trickery; it’s central to the experience. We perceive people and events as Nina does, and we effectively become enveloped in her psyche. And when she finally “loses herself,” we’re right there with her: scared and confused as reality crumbles, but also hypnotically transfixed and, at last, elated.
“Rabbit Hole” tells a story that we’ve heard a thousand times before, usually in bad Lifetime movies: A couple’s idyllic domestic life is shattered by the sudden death of their young child, and the ensuing grief drives them apart. The basic plot is so by-the-numbers that I never would have dreamed it could be turned into a film like this — so unassuming and free of self-importance, yet so attuned to its characters and their complexities that it elevates familiar material to the level of transcendence.
“Rabbit Hole” stars Nicole Kidman (in a career-best performance) and Aaron Eckhart (in his most layered work since “In the Company of Men”) as the married couple, and their dynamic is key to the film’s effect. We don’t get a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth, but rather a series of quiet moments in which the actors effectively conceal their feelings just beneath the surface. The story begins eight months after their four-year-old son was struck and killed by a car, so the viewer is privy not to the immediate shock, but instead the slow-burn grief that settles into the characters’ psyches and drives them to fixate on the constant, everyday reminders that nothing can ever be good again.
Or can it? Granted, “Rabbit Hole” is a tremendously sad film, filled with unspeakable pain and feelings of guilt. But had director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), working from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, wallowed in this negativity, then the effect of “Rabbit Hole” would have been diminished. The film’s greatness lies in its ability to find, in the midst of all the anguish, some degree of hope and, yes, even humor.
Yet no explanation, no sequencing of words, could possibly convey the unique pleasures this film offers. Watching it feels like a privilege, and the process of discovering these characters and sharing in their healing processes represents the most rewarding film experience I’ve had all year.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.