The opening scene of Luke Shanahan’s debut feature Rabbit engages all your senses. The pulsating score escorts a woman in danger through an eerie fairytale forest as threatening figures loom in the trees. The film’s fluid back and forth between reality and dreams unravels a mystery pertaining to the perpetual bond between identical twins, Cleo and Maude Ashford (Adelaide Clemens). Visually compelling and tonally foreboding, Rabbit’s strengths lie in its performances – especially from its two female leads – and in its surreal moments, which are, unfortunately, abandoned abruptly to return to a sense of normalcy.
The plot follows Maude, a young medical student troubled by recurring nightmares of her twin sister’s abduction a year ago. When her dreams become hallucinations, she’s convinced her sister is still alive and trying to communicate with her. She returns home to Australia to face her grieving family and to follow the clues from her visions in the hope they will lead her to Cleo. Accompanied by her sister’s fiancé Ralph (Alex Russell) and Henry (Jonny Pasvolsky), the police detective obsessed with the case, the trail leads them to a backwoods town where the residents of an isolated trailer park are certainly strange and most definitely not to be trusted.
Beyond the trailer park lies an even more elusive location known as the “big house”. It’s here that local surgeon and maternal presence Nerida (Veerle Bautens in an understated performance) lives and lures identical twins for ambiguous scientific experiments. Bautens is intriguing to watch as she deftly portrays kindness and an underlying menace with little more than a glance. Her eyes truly become the window to Nerida’s soul, whose motivations remain cloudy at best. It’s inside the secretive house that Maude is mentally and physically tested, in turn discovering that her fate is intertwined with Cleo’s. The overarching question then becomes whether or not her fate is predetermined or if it can be changed.
There are moments in Rabbit that hover just on the edge of horror, often heightened to this level by Michael Darren’s ominous score. Likewise, the cinematography by Anna Howard (Errors of the Human Body) creates an otherworldly atmosphere to the isolated locations that elevates the more surreal beats of the narrative. There are a few abrupt edits from intense scenes that present as jarring, instead of what I assume was meant to be unnerving. But overall Rabbit looks and sounds beautiful.
With its dreamy visuals and themes of good versus evil, Rabbit has the makings of a contemporary fairytale. Nerida is easily comparable to the evil witch in any children’s storybook, capturing innocents in her house of horrors. Of course, she does not view herself as a villain but as a scientist serving a higher purpose. However, those hoping to fully grasp that purpose or the inner workings of the “big house” will be left wanting since this subplot raises more questions than answers. But the ambiguity of the ending and the mysteries surrounding the experiments are sure to strike up conversation outside the theater. Ultimately, the story belongs to Maude and the dual performance from Clemens appears effortless. There isn’t a moment where the viewer isn’t on board to follow her down whichever path she may choose.