Rabbit Hole (United States, 2010)December 22, 2010
Numerous movies about grief miss the mark by a wide margin, sliding down a slippery slope of schlocky melodrama with overacting performers failing to convince us that their tears are real. Every once in a while, however, a film gets it right. In the Bedroom is one example. Rabbit Hole is another. Uncompromising, painful, and at times difficult to watch, this movie lays bare more than a few raw nerves. Some viewers will find it too real, too immediate. It's an experience, to be sure, but I wouldn't classify it as entertainment. Those who venture into Rabbit Hole with their expectations properly aligned will leave fulfilled and perhaps with a slightly different perspective on a few things.
The setup is simple. It has been eight months since Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost their four-year old son, Danny, in a traffic accident. His dog ran into the street and, without looking, Danny followed. He was struck by a car driven by teenager Jason (Miles Teller). For Becca and Howie, the wound has scabbed over but not healed, and the unexpected pregnancy of Becca's sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), threatens to exacerbate the injury. Becca lives in a frosty cocoon of denial. Howie believes she is trying to "erase" Danny from their lives, much as she erased a video of him from Howie's smart phone. She removes Danny's clothing from the house. She gives Danny's dog to her mother. She stops attending a support group. She calls God "sadistic" and sneers at those who turn to religion for comfort. She will not have sex or consider the possibility of another child. And she begins stalking Jason, seeking some kind of connection that even she doesn't understand. For his part, Howie appears to have adjusted, at least to a degree. He has passed through more stages of grief than his wife, but he still suffers from bouts of anger and depression. As the gulf between Becca and Howie grows, he gravitates toward fellow support group member Gaby (Sandra Oh), whose husband has recently left her. When he tells her that he loves his wife, we wonder if he means the Becca of old or the Becca of now.
There are things in life that change us and, once we experience them, there's no going back. If we were to travel through time and meet the individuals we once were, it would be like encountering other people. Having a child may be the most transformative experience a person can experience. Losing that child is a close second. Parents invest so much into the care, nurturing, and upbringing of their offspring that, if the child dies, the resulting chasm seems bottomless. Life cannot be what it once was. Death is not a time machine that allows us to return to the carefree days of pre-parenthood. It's a wound that cuts deeply and leaves a scar. It shakes the foundations of even the sturdiest marriages. People react differently to tragedy and, in the midst of grief, a mutual sense of intolerance can create a gap that can be intimidating to span. Many marriages collapse after the death of a child. Watching Becca and Howie, it's not hard to understand why this is the case.
Before it became a movie, Rabbit Hole existed as a play. Written with brilliant perceptiveness by David Linday-Abaire, it won the Pulitzer Prize and earned actress Cynthia Nixon a Tony. John Cameron Mitchell (Shortbus, Hedwig and the Angry Inch), whom one might not naturally associate with this sort of non-escapist drama, was attracted to the project because it spoke to him. His direction is understated and he is supported by several sterling performances. Chief among those is Nicole Kidman's. She digs deep to find Becca's wellspring of pain and brings it to the screen with an intensity that is at times difficult to watch. We not only believe her loss, but we feel how it is destroying her and her family. Aaron Eckhart is nearly as good, although he goes a little over-the-top during the blowup that illustrates how far apart Howie and Becca have drifted. In a supporting role as Becca's mother, Dianne Wiest has several wonderful moments.
The movie is not about Danny's death. With the one exception, the narrative is flashback-free, remaining in the present and advancing linearly. This is about the difficulty of recovery even months after the fact. Many people ascribe a time table to grief but its impact can be so subtle and pernicious that it continues to eat at the soul long after its most obvious effects have faded. Rabbit Hole is about how the enormity of the loss of a child short-circuits everything, reducing life's colors to grays and the experience of living to a chore. The movie has some minor missteps in tone (the aforementioned argument between Becca and Howie is jarring with Eckhart too obviously acting) but represents one of the best explorations of this kind of grief I have seen represented on screen. It is not patronizing and, more importantly, it is not manipulative. The honesty is stark and will make Rabbit Hole challenging for some and sobering for others. It tells its story with respect and openness and offers a catharsis at the end. That may not always happen in real life but, in a movie where we have come to empathize with the characters, it's the right approach.
Rabbit Hole (United States, 2010)
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Miles Teller, Sandra Oh
Screenplay: David Linday-Abaire, based on his play
Cinematography: Frank DeMarco
Music: Stephen Trask
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate