Aiming for a refined style of catharsis, John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole is the kind of tragedy that requires a human sacrifice. The victim in this case is four-year-old Danny Corbett, whose death by a speeding automobile occurs several months before the film begins. The story of painful recovery which follows, adapted from David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer-winning play, puts the audience's through the paces of one couple's healing, confronting their anguish in a manner that feels realistic but hollowly focused on pain.
Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) live the kind of otherwise perfect suburban life that makes a missing family member seem all the more apparent: gardening, baking pies, and playing intense games of squash. At this point in their grieving, however, these kinds of activities are covers for the yawning emptiness that remains inside them. Befitting the pedigree of its source material, Rabbit Hole thankfully remains circumspect in its treatment of this situation, scaling back on the hysterics and mostly steering clear of melodrama.
Yet despite its respectful center the exploitative aspects displayed are hard to ignore. Too often the film seems content to feast on melancholy and hurt, giving the effect of watching scabs grow back only to be picked off again. Scenes with Kidman working through the clot of anger that has replaced her son, while well played, are routinely ugly. Whether accosting a stranger in a supermarket or disrupting her sister's birthday party, these outbursts are plotted as stages on a road to recovery, but they exploit the same raw nerves as cringe-humor like The Office, testing our ability to handle awkwardness. Here the intention is not laughter, but the overall conception that we're involved in something positive, an accumulated burden of pain leading toward a deservedly hopeful ending.
The film's central conceit may be perfect for awards season, poised to rack up accolades and wrench tears from willing audiences, but it's bad for much beyond that. It's hard to know what we're supposed to glean from watching beautiful, well-heeled people suffer in such a way, or how watching Eckhart weep into a dog's fur should be anything but mordantly hilarious.
This kind of rigged setup makes the fact that Rabbit Hole remains so well-behaved, perfectly circumspect in circling its sensitive subject, rigidly attentive to the demands drama, feel like a hollow victory. This gauntlet of torment on display, while ostensibly acting as treatment for a couple learning to process their grief, is ultimately more about the perverse sense of accomplishment to be earned by the audience. Like Crash without the clunky characterization, Rabbit Hole is film as medicine, a big, pretty pill to be uncomfortably swallowed.