When confronted with all the potential snares a story like this could fall into, the fact that director John Cameron Mitchell avoids them all stands as a significant creative achievement.
It's been eight months since upper middle class suburban couple Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart) lost their four year old son Danny in a freak car accident - and the pain lingers. It doesn't come right out and announce itself. Instead, it folds and twists the affectionate marrieds, manipulating them into decisions both promising and problematic. For Becca, erasing the past appears to be the proper way to go. Even better, she has taken up a social acquaintance with Jason (Miles Teller) the 17-year-old boy driving the car that day. Howie, on the other hand, has more immediate, surprisingly selfish needs. When his wife won't acquiesce, he flirts with the idea of an affair with a member of his therapy group. Welcome to coping circa the new millennium.
In the hands of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus director John Cameron Mitchell, Rabbit Hole is like Ordinary People for a more enlightened and open post-modern New Age. In the same vein as that amazing 1980 Robert Redford effort, this story of familial dysfunction and personal grief excels at highlighting the individual responses to innocent life cut short and human expectations instantly destroyed. Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also handled the screenplay duties here), it's a far less confrontational piece, but equally as powerful.
There’s no heartless bitch mother, concerned if impotent father, and surviving son poised on the verge of yet another suicidal breakdown. Instead, Rabbit Hole moves the sorrow out of the snowbound darkness of a cold Winter in Chicago and, instead, sets it against a backdrop of a life so charmed and elite that it’s impossible to imagine such horrors happening there. But in the sun drenched world of Becca and Howie, dread has become the norm. The pair play act at being together, yet the way they handle the misery of losing a child couldn’t be more compartmentalized and separate.
There is a graceful disparity between the two. She’s trying to forget, purging their house of every last remnant of their son’s sacred existence. He, on the other hand, wants to go through the process. He wants the counseling and the sharing, the tears and the lasting mental memories. Part of the beauty of Rabbit Hole is watching Kidman and Eckhart embody these differences. Unlike most of her glamour gal roles, the Oscar winner doesn’t trade on her porcelain beauty to make us care for Becca. Instead, her fiery determination to deal with the tragedy in her own, encouraged ways wins us over. Howie is more complex. He tends to do the right thing, even when trial and temptation are staring right back at him. Eckhart’ work here is far more subtle. Even as he’s shouting, he seems ready to slink off sheepishly to hide.
Unlike a sinister slow burn such as Revolutionary Road, Rabbit Hole is not about married agendas. Becca is not trying to rewrite her vows with this inexplicable loss. There’s no vendetta to avenge, no hidden secrets bolting to the surface. Indeed, her only surreptitious act is to contact the teen responsible and try to befriend him. She sees it as an act of compassion, of acknowledging the pain in others in order to (perhaps) compensate for her own. Of course, Howie finds this distasteful…until he realizes he probably feels the same way. There last act argument and eventual make-up maneuvers the film into a realm of realism - and as a result, resonate power - that other more manipulative dramas can only dream of achieving.
Indeed, the most stunning aspect of Rabbit Hole is how normal it all seems. We don’t get literate fights where the characters appear to be browbeating each other with a copy of the Edward Albee primer. There isn’t a Virginia Woolf to be frightened of here. Instead, Lindsay-Abaire lets the natural rhythms of true emotion shine through. Becca and Howie don’t hate each other. Instead, they are looking for coping mechanisms in a culture beset by more self-help tips than real insights. For her, it’s about removing the links between the present and the recent precedent (which would explain why she avoids her friends as well). He has anger to channel, and playing squash and smoking pot doesn’t dampen its determination. Indeed, when Mitchell isn’t filling the frame with homespun images of wholesomeness and normalcy, he’s tweaking the edges with potential pitfalls.
Most of these hurdles come from Becca’s side of the family. Mom (Dianne Wiest) is so locked in her own loss - her heroin-addicted son, Becca’s brother, committed suicide when he was 30 - that her only frame of reference revolves around how current events remind her of said situation. On the other hand, Becca’s slutty sister is pregnant, her ne’er do well musician boyfriend offering support, if little security. While it seems like a kind of affront, especially for a grieving parent, the overall attitude is more conciliatory than cruel. Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) consistently tells Becca that she’s sorry, when the actual apology should come from the lost soul incapable of addressing the possible joys in others. While Howie struggles with all of this, his wife’s way seems sensible, until she realizes that it draws things out, instead of putting them to a legitimate end.
What Mitchell accomplishes here is remarkable. You expect certain things from a film centering on the loss of a child, especially when you focus on the uncommunicative personalities of the parents. But instead of all shouting and screaming, aggrandizements and artifice, he finds a way to maneuver through said minefield with a remarkable amount of care. His cast is crucial in this collaboration and each one plays their part expertly. Kidman has never been better, her usual stoic stance doing a great job of sheltering a clear core of vulnerability. In fact, when confronted with all the potential snares a story like this could fall into, the fact that Mitchell avoids them all stands as a significant creative achievement.
In the end, Rabbit Hole is about avoiding the siren song escape of the title trap. There is no wonderland to be found here, just a reality that’s been changed irrevocably and can never go backwards. For Becca and Howie, eight months has been a legitimate lifetime. But now, it’s time to forge a path toward another existence, one that incorporates the grief as much as being modified by it. Flight is not an option – not for anyone involved. Finding a way to not just cope, but to conquer, requires more than mere resolve. Luckily, this is one case where the parties perceiver, and while painful, the outcome truly makes the best of a very bad situation.