Pretty isn’t always a bad thing in films about horrible events, but it can be a distraction, not to mention a cheap way to tidy up situations that are by definition untidy. John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about grieving parents is a near-perfect example of what happens when decorousness gets in the way of raw, ripping emotions.
Rabbit Hole takes its time to swing around to the tragedy at its center, and in the meantime it offers a middle-aged, upper-middle class couple in emotional stasis. Becca (the role Cynthia Nixon originated on Broadway, here played by Nicole Kidman) spends her time puttering around her immaculate, waterfront home. Gardening instead of facing friends or accepting condolences on the accidental death of her four-year-old son, she resents attempts by her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) to reintroduce her to some kind of normalcy. The fact that Howie’s version of this new life involves attending grim, AA-type meetings with other parents whose children died young makes her reluctance at least somewhat understandable. That Becca appears to resent Howie for carrying on with his life at all (going to his unspecified but clearly well-paying office job, playing squash) slightly diminishes one’s sympathy for her point of view.
Becca’s withdrawal from life is somewhat mirrored by Mitchell’s precise approach to the material. The script, which playwright David Lindsay-Abaire adapted himself, makes the intelligent decision not to (with one very brief exception) enter the problematic territory of the flashback or flashforward; the death of their little boy Danny is never seen. By the time the audience comes across Becca and Howie some eight months later, they’re coming to increasingly overt friction between themselves. The problem is that with the posh, white-collar suburban surroundings and general atmosphere of monied security, Mitchell leaves the drama in the hands of Kidman and Eckhart, both perfectly credible in their roles, but neither digging into a particular, deeply felt dilemma.
Unlike many stories set in this kind of rarified world, Rabbit Hole at least acknowledges the existence of socioeconomic differences, here represented in the shape of Becca’s sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) and mother Nat (Dianne Wiest). A wayward type first introduced in the aftermath of a barfight, Izzy is explosive and emotive (that is, Becca’s opposite), while the blue-collar Nat provides the closest thing to realistic advice that her daughter receives throughout the film. When Becca asks her mother about whether the pain ever goes away after losing a child, she responds with a resolute but compassionate firmness: “No.”
If Becca at least must contend with her family members, Howie is mostly left on his own, save for brief conversations with his squash partner, about Becca, or an underdeveloped subplot concerning his friendship with anther grieving parent mother from the support group (Sandra Oh). While he’s out of the house, Becca begins to find her way out too, specifically in scenes where she follows the school-bus route of a local teenager, Jason (Miles Tenner, in an impressive debut). It turns out he was the driver who hit her child right in front of her house. Instead of seeking revenge or some form of explanation, Becca wants just to talk. In their moments together, the film’s quiet calm achieves the kind of thoughtful stillness, the space between the two thrumming frightfully with all that is never said about death, that elsewhere seems merely empty and expectant.
This adaptation never carries that electrifying tension over to the rest of the story. Too much of Rabbit Hole coasts quietly, close-ups revealing Becca and Howie’s tastefully adorned cocoon, their efforts not to speak too plainly, but rather to withhold. The film matches these efforts, and in doing so, it feels withholding too.