Rabbit Hole (2010): United States – directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Rated PG-13 by the MPAA – contains some language, mature thematic material, some drug content
This is difficult material, stuff that often ends up in Hallmark-style packaging, dripping in cheese. Or it’s so terribly depressing that no audience wants to even continue living. Somehow, director John Cameron Mitchell and David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting from his own play) have made it work, in one of the year’s most honest films.
The story is laid out gently, softly. There is no overt exposition, and only one brief, restrained, and beautifully placed flashback. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) have experienced a terrible loss. Gentle revelations occur as the story unfolds, but some of the details are clear from the beginning. They had a four year old son named Danny.
Danny was killed in a car accident eight months earlier, and Becca and Howie still struggle to live each day. The film opens with Becca in the garden, one of several activities that keeps her mind and body occupied. A neighbor stops by to inquire about a possible dinner together. She accidentally steps on some of Becca’s flowers. Becca is polite, declines the invitation, and makes an excuse. It’s painfully clear that she is hurting, that she doesn’t want her neighbor’s attempts at friendliness, that a thing as simple as a squished flower evokes strong emotions.
Howie deals with his grief differently. He re-watches home video of Danny on his phone and wants to go to a support group with Becca. He wants to process the grief normally and healthily. The support group doesn’t go as planned, thanks to Becca’s caustic bitterness and anger toward God. Gaby (Sandra Oh) understands, and is patient and understanding. She’s been going to group for eight years.
Becca is also resentful towards her mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), who lost a son several years earlier. Nat is older and wiser, and takes comfort in some knowledge of God. Becca’s sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) is young and carefree, a polar opposite of Becca. Her unexpected pregnancy forces Becca to confront some of her grief in a new way.
Howie thinks that a new baby might help matters, that it might redirect their destructive lives. But any attempt at marital intimacy is thwarted by Becca, who seems to think that she can never experience happiness or joy again, and shouldn’t. She strikes up an odd friendship with a local high school boy (Miles Teller), and finds they may be able to mutually bring a small measure of healing into each other’s lives. Howie looks for his own outlets, and starts straying down some of his own potentially devastating paths.
With so many opportunities for missteps, it’s a miracle that Rabbit Hole stays on course until the end credits. Nothing lurid happens; no, these are real characters dealing with their struggles in a real way. There are a dozen different chances for the film to devolve into sappy melodrama, but it manages to remain honest and credible. The ending offers the beginning of hope, a realistic hope that, although the pain will never go away, it may be possible to deal with it one day at a time.
The film is anchored by strong performances from Eckhart and Kidman, and a strong supporting cast. But these stars wouldn’t be able to shine without the restraint of Mitchell’s direction. The film unfolds slowly, and the camera lingers. In a single glance, a small movement, Kidman portrays more pure emotion and pain than any line of dialogue could possibly convey. Only occasionally does her American accent crack ever-so-slightly, but this is nothing more than a minor hiccup. And only once does Eckhart stray near over-the-top melodrama, but this, too, manages to work the way it’s incorporated into the film.
An assured screenwriter, adapting his own popular play, and a director not afraid to let his story and characters do the work enable Rabbit Hole to be a wholly engrossing journey. The characters are deep and real, and even the high school boy looks like a normal high school boy. The film is grounded in reality, and never feels stagey or contrived. A simple soundtrack underscores some emotional moments, but is never intrusive or distracting. Rarely does Hollywood (one would have to look to Ingmar Bergman’s films for something similar) offer such an honest look at two characters and their open wounds, and it is a treat to watch Kidman and Eckhart capably handle the task. Rabbit Hole is sure to be successful come awards season, and I sincerely hope the rest of Hollywood pays attention to the elements that make it so powerful.