How can I convince you that a movie centered on a couple in deep grief over the death of their son isn’t a total downer? I haven’t been able to talk about Rabbit Hole with anyone I know. Most people — especially parents — literally scurry away when I mention it: They don’t even want to hear about it. The loss of a child is so colossal that when filmmakers try to deal with the subject head-on, the result is usually either wan and superficial (The Lovely Bones) or too painful to qualify as entertainment (I’m still scarred from sneaking into Sophie’s Choice when I was 15.)
Rabbit Hole, which was directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) from a screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his Pulitzer-winning play), begins eight months after Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost 4-year-old Danny when he chased his dog into the path of an oncoming car. The volcanic eruptions of grief have passed, and the couple is slowly trying to re-enter the world – slowly being the key word.
Becca has quit her job at Sotheby’s and now dedicates her energy to cooking and gardening. Howie has managed to convince her to attend group therapy with him, but she doesn’t believe the sessions do any good. Their sex life remains non-existent. Danny’s dog has been banished to the home of Becca’s mom Nat (Dianne Wiest), who doesn’t understand why her daughter hasn’t turned to the church for comfort and support. Becca’s sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) announces — with the worst timing imaginable for what otherwise would have been greeted as great news — that she’s pregnant. (In one of the film’s best, most disquieting moments, Becca tries to give Izzy all of Danny’s clothes, an offer understandably refused.)
The plot of Rabbit Hole follows Becca and Howie as they deal with their sorrow in radically different ways. She wants to sell the house, move away and eradicate all traces that her son ever existed (although she is compelled to befriend the teenaged driver of the car that killed him — her desperate, compulsive attempt at healing). Howie compulsively watches home videos of his son, resents Becca for removing his drawings from the refrigerator door and gently tries to restore a rhythm of familiarity and ritual to his disheveled marriage. When he suggests to Becca they should try to have sex again, she looks at him as if he were from another planet.
Mitchell, whose previous films were flamboyant provocations, displays an entirely different approach to storytelling here, keeping the visuals simple and the tone quiet, sneaking unexpected humor into a seemingly humorless situation, and allowing his cast to carry the show. Rabbit Hole doesn’t feel sterile and stage bound, like filmed plays often do. But the performances by Kidman — a gifted actress who has become easy to take for granted, like Meryl Streep — and Eckhart have the depth and subtlety of theater actors who have become intimately familiar with their roles and are able to express complex emotions with a simple look or gesture.
Rabbit Hole doesn’t achieve the level of catharsis Mitchell aims for: As much as we come to know and sympathize with Becca and Howie, something about them remains artificial and unknowable. You can’t imagine that they were ever happy, even before they lost their son, because they never quite register as real people. But on a larger, thematic level, Rabbit Hole is absorbing and hugely compelling, a thoughtful portrayal of the myriad ways in which we learn to deal with the unthinkable. You just have to learn to bear the weight.
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Miles Teller, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh, Giancarlo Esposito.
Director: John Cameron Mitchell.
Screenwriter: David Lindsay-Abaire.
Producers: Gigi Pritzker, Nicole Kidman, Per Saari.
A Lionsgate Films studios release. Running time: 92 minutes. Vulgar language, drug use. Opens Friday March 4 in Miami-Dade: Coral Gables Art Cinema.