Rabbit Hole is a film about a married couple trying to come to terms with the death of their young son, and I'm sure that basic description has already turned off a number of readers. I know what it sounds like; a wallow in misery and a blatant grab for awards recognition, the kind of film you've seen too many times already, but Rabbit Hole is not entirely the picture you expect it to be. Instead of wallowing, the film moves swiftly, displaying a sharp edge, a keen insight, an unexpected sense of humour, and a deep empathy with its characters' confused and turbulent emotional states. When we are introduced to Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), eight months have passed since the death of their four year-old son, but that sense of loss can still be felt in every scene, and neither parent has yet found a way to return their lives to their previous state of normalcy. "I was trying to make things nice," Howie says at one point, after Becca rejects his romantic advances. "You can't, you just can't" she retorts, "Things aren't 'nice' anymore."
Everyone grieves in a different way and Rabbit Hole follows both Becca and Howie as they take very different approach to coping with their pain. Howie is more open about wanting to deal with their loss in a traditional way, persuading his reluctant wife to attend weekly group therapy sessions, and trying to reignite the sexual spark that has been non-existent between them since the incident. At every attempt he makes to reach out to his wife, she recoils. Becca is a prickly, difficult character to get to know, and she internalises her grief, maintaining an emotional distance from those around her. Both characters appear trapped in a state of stasis. With no one to blame for the tragic and purely accidental death of their son, they lack an outlet for their grief, anger and dismay, and they're both searching tentatively for the next move. Should they maintain their son's memory by preserving his room, keeping his paintings on the fridge and re-watching their home movies? Or should they clear it all away, perhaps even sell the house and try for another child?
These are complicated questions with no right or wrong answers, and they are questions handled with sensitivity and intelligence by David Lindsay-Abaire, who has adapted his own play for the screen. Rabbit Hole only occasionally betrays its stage origins, with the odd exchange or monologue that sounds overly written, and it would be easy to accuse the film of employing a too-neat structure as well. Both Howie and Becca find people outside of their marriage that they can form a connection with; Howie comes close to straying with a woman from his support group (Sandra Oh), while Becca begins spending time with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager who hit Danny with his car eight months earlier.
Even if such a setup does feel schematic, Rabbit Hole pulls it off superbly. The film feels incredibly tight, with every scene having a sense of weight and meaning, and the performances are truly remarkable from the whole ensemble. In particular, Nicole Kidman gives one of her finest performances to date in an enormously challenging role, and she shares some superbly judged scenes with Teller, who is outstanding as a young man coming to terms with his part in her son's death. John Cameron Mitchell may have seemed an unusual choice for this project, based on his outrageous and sexually charged earlier films Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, but his more restrained style fits the material beautifully, and he shows himself to be exceptional at directing actors and handling the most emotionally explosive scenes.
I should also mention the performance given by Dianne Wiest, who plays Becca's mother Nat. She also understands the pain of losing a child, with her son having died of an overdose, and her delicate performance seems to encapsulate one of the film's central themes. Grief never goes away, but you learn to deal with it, and learn to accept it as a permanent shadow in your life. "At some point it becomes bearable," she advises her daughter, "It becomes something you can crawl out from under and carry around, like a brick in your pocket." That's the lesson Becca and Howie learn in different ways in Rabbit Hole. They take wildly diverging paths but they ultimately find themselves at the same point; ready to move forward, but taking one careful step at a time.