Grief is understandably a tricky subject for the movies. Filmmakers usually, and annoyingly, reduce grief to a plot point, just another inciting incident to eventually pave the way for a few characters’ “growth” (Moonlight Mile and Elizabethtown are two galling semi-recent examples). The tendency is admittedly understandable, as grief, particularly over the loss of a child, is so personal and intensely painful that it tends to cause people to fall back on the most absurd and meaningless of platitudes in an attempt to console someone, or to merely get through an awkward encounter with a friend who has recently suffered a heartbreak that, to you and everyone else, remains nagging in its abstraction. And it’s that nagging quality that few films even attempt to explore, that guilty desire people have for the bereaved to just, well, get over it. Because people in extreme pain, poignant as they may be, are, in truth, a pain in the ass, a reminder of life’s fragility.
And this is why Rabbit Hole is a striking relief. The film, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer-winning play, and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, has been made with humanity and common sense. The film concerns Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman), an affluent, middle-aged couple who lost their four-year-old son several months ago. Howie wants to move on and make love with his wife again, maybe even have another child. But Becca’s sadness has hardened into rage, and she’s most disgusted with the pat pleasantries and reassurances that people offer her. Becca, somewhat understandably, resents what she sees as her family’s attempts to encourage her grieve on a timetable better suited to them. What Becca doesn’t see, or what she can’t yet address if she does see it, is that she’s become bitter and frazzled. Becca’s unwillingness to solicit help, which she sees as a cop-out, is hurting her family, delaying any kind of marginal resolution that anyone might hope to obtain.
Rabbit Hole is often quite unpleasant, but its refusal to offer comfortable generalizations is strangely reassuring. Mitchell is working on a more subdued scale here than he did in his previous films, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, and every scene is so succinct and sharp that you’re barely allowed to get your emotional bearings, which is, of course, the idea. Lindsay-Abaire’s script pointedly denies us the structure traditional to stories of domestic misery, as there’s no trumped-up conflict to shake Becca out of her crisis. The film is compromised of a series of painful, cathartic vignettes, with the implication, at the end, that Becca and Howie may have reached some sort of common ground. Or not. This irresolution essentially respects Becca’s right to her uncertainty, which is unusually principled and truthful for an American movie.
Kidman and Eckhart are the reasons to see Rabbit Hole though. Kidman is an occasionally terrific actress who, somewhat like Julia Roberts, too often seems unable to connect with her costars or material. There’s a self-containment, and self-consciousness, to many of Kidman’s performances that’s off-putting and rather dull; it’s no accident, then, that her best work—such as To Die For and The Others—frequently explores a disconnection from society that verges on hysteria. Watching Rabbit Hole, you get the impression that Kidman has been working toward this performance for a while. She’s daringly unlikeable in this film, but she isn’t the shrill cartoon that she was in Margot at the Wedding. Kidman allows you to see that Becca is angry and damaged without sentimentalizing the character; her line readings are curt and often surprising, but she also shows you, physically, what Becca is trying, and failing, to suppress, which is her despair and panic. Kidman is still a beautiful woman, but for the first time in at least a decade she looks like an actual human being, and the newfound vulnerability is jarring and rather extraordinary.
Eckhart is just as powerful in a less showy role, and he has a beautiful moment in the middle of the film when Becca and Howie are arguing about a video that she probably deliberately deleted. Actors tend to over-emote in argument scenes, to provide cathartic fireworks that are usually false emotionally. But most arguments, in actuality, are most painful for what you can’t articulate. There’s a moment where Howie is clearly gearing up to tell Becca off, to unload the suppressed resentment that he’s clearly been carrying throughout the film up to that point, and then his voice cracks, and he loses whatever momentum he thought he may have had. Eckhart’s entire performance is compromised of these subtle little effects; he has the easy-to-overlook task of showing us the baggage that Howie hides in an effort to accommodate his wife’s more outward pain.
It’s understandable why Rabbit Hole was largely ignored at the box office. Suspecting sanctimonious Oscar bait, I skipped it myself, but this film deserves discovery, as it’s the rare film that respects, and even occasionally satirizes, the irresolvable mysteries and contradictions of grief. It’s Oscar bait that should have actually won a few Oscars.
The image is deliberately plain and functional, as the real focus of the film is the intimacy of the performances. The transfer is perfectly fine though, and the color contrast is appropriately sharp and clear. The sound, however, is richer, impressively balancing the simple, evocative score with the subtleties of the actors' voices.
The filmmakers' commentary is affectionate but unremarkable, with the usual stories about the budget and securing locations. More detail about directing the actors, especially considering the trickiness of the tone of the material, would've been nice. (The most interesting factoid is the disclosure that Nicole Kidman, wisely, turned a part in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger down to do Rabbit Hole.) The deleted scenes only compromise a few minutes of material, and they were obviously removed for the usual reasons of pace and expediency. The film's trailer is also included.
The DVD is unremarkable, but Rabbit Hole is a wrenching, superbly acted film that deserves to find an audience.