When programmers chose Rabbit Hole to open the Starz Denver Film Festival, they likely did so because of its quality and local link; director John Cameron Mitchell is from Colorado Springs. But this meditation on a couple dealing with a child's death is appropriate for another reason. The fest's been dedicated to the late George Hickenlooper, who was invoked multiple times last night.
The film's co-star, Aaron Eckhart, was easily the biggest celeb to tread the red carpet -- and pretty much the only one the average onlooker didn't need to have identified for him. The press mobbed Eckhart in the moments before the event got underway inside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, when Denver Film Society chairman David Charmatz, senior vice president of product and planning development for Starz Entertainment, welcomed the nattily clad attendees.
Charmatz began by touting the DFS' thirteen-month transition from its current home, at the Tivoli, to the new Denver FilmCenter/Colfax, which will be in the spotlight this evening thanks to a screening of Casino Jack. That naturally led to the first mention of the aforementioned George Hickenlooper, governor-elect John Hickenlooper's cousin, who died late Friday shortly after arriving in Denver for the fest and to document the other Hick's gubernatorial bid.
Shortly thereafter came a screening of the annual sponsor film. It's usually a chore to sit through, but this year's model was more enjoyable than usual thanks in part to a cheeky tone exemplified by a subtitle that read, "This sponsor film is terrible." Afterward, the lights came up to reveal festival director Britta Erickson (who cameos in the sponsor film). She offered her own remembrance of Hickenlooper even as she plugged events like the annual Mayor's award, to be given this year to director Danny Boyle, and introduced Mitchell, who immediately charmed the audience by noting that he last visited the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in 1988, when he played Peter Pan in a play -- "a kind of punk Pan," he emphasized. He also pointed out that his parents were in the audience.
From there, Rabbit Hole unspooled in its quiet, subtle way. Although adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film was less stagebound than anticipated thanks to Mitchell's emphasis on image over verbiage and a refusal by the director and his cast to go for cheap emotions or easy catharsis. The plot regularly seems to be heading toward Cliche Mountain only to veer away at the last moment, with Kidman and Eckhart generally eschewing "Hey, Oscar voter!" showboating for underplaying that ultimately proves considerably more impactful. So, too, does the conclusion, which sounds a note of hope that the film earns rather than tacks on.
In the end, Rabbit Hole is a tear jerker that doesn't jerk many tears, and that may hurt it in terms of awards recognition. It may simply be too tasteful to break through the noise to more than a handful of cineastes. But that doesn't make it any less artistically worthy.
Following the final credits, Erickson presented Eckhart with the fest's acting award -- courtesy of Tiffany's, she made sure to mention. While accepting the bauble, Eckhart said his parents were in the crowd, too. Call if Family Night at the Denver Film Festival.
Then Eckhart took a seat alongside Mitchell and Denver Post film critic Lisa Kennedy, a fan of the film who nonetheless did a good job of avoiding overt gushing during an interview segment with the pair, and also contributed to one of the conversation's best laughs. At one point, Mitchell mistakenly said his parents had come in for the screening from San Francisco rather than Colorado Springs. "Easily confused," Kennedy said.
Eckhart, for his part, mixed occasional quips with some self-consciously thespy moments, as when he asked the audience if they preferred actors who stretched rather than those who found a safety zone and stayed there -- and received only a smattering of lukewarm applause. Awk-ward. But his point was well taken when he confessed that he's now less reluctant than during the earlier years of his career "to take roles that make me feel bad."
Mitchell, though, dominated the segment with brash wit and frequent bon mots whose light-heartedness set up ticket holders for an unexpected, and moving, bit of revelation. In talking about how he wanted the film to prove helpful to those living through grief, he mentioned that his brother had died at age four, when Mitchell was fourteen. "His birthday was yesterday," Mitchell said.
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Suddenly, those tears that hadn't quite fallen during Rabbit Hole began to well -- an appropriate beginning to a festival that will mingle filmic celebration with acknowledgment of loss.
Here's the trailer for Rabbit Hole:
Check out a 2009 entry from our Television & Film archive: "Opening night at the Starz Denver Film Festival: Dialed down but still Precious."