‘Rabbit Hole’ Tackles a Heartbreaking Topic with Humor, Humanity and Grace

Rabbit Hole may come with one of the most unusual endorsements you could expect from an Oscar-baiting drama: “It’s not as depressing as you think it is!”

Yet, as strange as it seems, Rabbit Hole derives a lot of its strength from its uplift. Although the film deals with a very serious, very dark topic (a married couple dealing with the loss of their four-year old son in an auto accident), it never turns into a voyeuristic view of a couple at their lowest moment. Instead, it cuts deeper by showing said couple doing the exact opposite of that: they’re trying to lead normal lives several months since the accident.

Howie (Aaron Eckhart) goes to work. He admires his son’s artwork on the fridge. He watches videos of the happy family together on his phone. He is doing everything he can to remember his son.

Becca (Nicole Kidman), however, is grieving by distancing herself from the event. She doesn’t want to be consoled by neighbors. She wants to get rid of her son’s clothes and drawings. She despises group therapy with a passion. Becca and Howie think they’re slowly encroaching upon something resembling normal, but before long it becomes obvious that, instead, they are getting further and further away from it.

In David Lindsay-Abaire’s original stage play, the action takes place entirely in Becca and Howie’s house. When he expands the play’s world to fit the screen, though, what he finds isn’t an opportunity to write more gut-wrenching scenes — he finds nuance. While before, the young man who accidentally runs over Becca and Howie’s son (Miles Tiller) eventually reaches out to the couple in an honest if awkward attempt to get past his unspeakable accident, in the film, it takes a bit of a twist. Now, Becca spots Jason in a school bus (obviously not driving his own car anymore) while driving around town one day, and is strangely drawn to him.

As devastated as she is over the loss of her own son, she finds an unlikely surrogate in Jason, and before long, they meet for the first time. They make awkward small talk. Then he tells her details about the accident that she didn’t know before. Becca isn’t disturbed by these details (he normally drives the speed limit, but was somehow just driving a bit faster that day) — she instead finds comfort in them. While she banishes certain reminders of her son (he ran into the street chasing their dog — who now stays with her mother), it’s these smaller moments that seem to speak to her in powerful ways.

Which is exactly the opposite of Howie. While Becca hates the idea of group therapy from the second she sets foot in there, Howie finds some comfort in a lot. He finds a kindred spirit in Gaby (Sandra Oh), who runs the sessions. Gaby’s been coming to therapy for eight years. Howie gets this: that’s the normal way to do it.

Becca, meanwhile, sees eight years of group therapy as being shackled to your grief. Even when Howie winds up spending more and more time with Gaby, Becca barely says a word. She can judge all of those around her (including her sister, Izzy, who she doesn’t think is fit to be carrying a child of her own), and she can shun those who help her (like her mother, who dealt with her own loss, which Becca resents having her son compared to), but even through all of these emotionally charged encounters, she still loves her husband, and it’s in that love that Rabbit Hole finds its uplift.

Give credit to director John Cameron Mitchell for his masterful handling of the material. Although Mitchell is still most famously known for his work on the glam-camp musical Hedwig & the Angry Inch (and, to a lesser extent, the overly sexual Shortbus), it’s surprising to see him handle a subject such as this so delicately, letting subtlety and nuance slip in without saying “Hey, look what I’m doing!” He lets the actors breathe and he lets the scenes flow naturally. Nothing is forced, and even the eventual tear-filled screaming matches never turn into “Oscar clip moments”: they happen to be that way because the characters had no other choice than to act that way.

As such, Rabbit Hole never fully devolves into “tearjerker” territory: its characters are treated with respect, and as such, we’re emotionally invested in them. Also, Mitchell is not afraid to let humor slip in from time to time — in fact, there are scenes that are absolutely hilarious. His mixture of tones is just right, and we never get dragged into one emotional place for too long. This sort of pacing and brevity (the film has a run time of 91-minutes) is what gives Rabbit Hole its strength, something sorely missing from most kitchen-sink dramas you see these days.

The cast, of course, also deserves many superlatives for grounding the characters in a very real way, but special credit should be given to Kidman, who absolutely deserved that Academy Award nomination for her performance. Becca can be cold, sure, but Kidman’s brilliance lies in the fact that we can always see her reasoning behind her actions. Becca is judging and manipulative, finding fault in all those around her, but we wind up sympathizing with her way because it soon becomes apparent that this “I can do it on my own” mentality is exactly how she’s dealing with grief.

Although Eckhart doesn’t have as meaty a role to bite into (as Howie’s actions are spelled out pretty clearly), it’s Dianne Wiest who matches Kidman scene for scene as her mother. Wiest gives the role of Nat a gloriously unnecessary vulnerability and weakness. Nat wants to console and comfort all those around her even as her timing is hideous and her asides uncomfortable. She plays her own grief hand too, but her daughter always seems to put her in her place, insisting her own grief is different. It’s not easy material to sift through, but the two veteran actresses make their scenes utterly compelling to watch.

Although Rabbit Hole is pretty sparse on DVD extras (the only deleted scene really worth keeping is a revealing one called “Bed, Bath & Beyond”, although the not-too-subtle shot of a child’s mock bedroom may have sledgehammered the point home too hard), its commentary track is something to behold. Here, Mitchell, Lindsay-Abaire, and DP Frank G. DeMarco start talking about virtually every aspect of the film even as the opening credits are still rolling. From casting to shot composition, from Mitchell’s insistence of using simple, barely-moving shots to let the actors take center stage to DeMarco’s choice to use natural lighting as much possible to give the film a very humane glow, every single aspect of the film is touched on in one way or another.

Lindsay-Abaire highlights all of the major changes from the stage play to the film while Mitchell discusses what he thinks is proper ego-debunking etiquette (directors should never edit their own films, he notes), all while discussing the actor’s various processes along the way. Their commentary is light on jokes because they have so much to talk about into what went into the making of the film, and their revelations are truly something to behold.

In short, Rabbit Hole is an extraordinary film not necessarily because of what it is (a heart-wrenching drama) but largely because of what it does (tackle such a heartbreaking topic with humor, humanity and grace). Although Rabbit Hole does bear the strange endorsement of not being as depressing as you think it is, this is largely a tactic to just try and get you to watch it, because in all honesty, it will probably be worth it.

RATING 8 / 10