Rabbit Hole takes on one of the oldest artistic subjects – a family’s struggle to find some way of moving on from a devastating death. Yet, as adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film avoids the overt sentimentalizing and easy stabs at the tear ducts –what one might deem “grief porn” – that have wrecked so many of its predecessors.
Instead, director John Cameron Mitchell has assembled an affecting, well-acted portrait of a couple stuck in stasis, trying to reclaim normalcy where there is none to be had. The Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator demonstrates an eye for the intricacies of a strained relationship, the complex psychological burden of the lingering, pervasive specter of a terrible loss and the eerie quality of a home once occupied by a child, now hauntingly quieted.
Protagonists Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart), reeling from the death of their four-year-old son in a tragic accident, garden, cook, play squash and go to work. But a pervasive, powerful emptiness lingers. Each copes differently with the trauma: Becca steels up and shuts down, while Howie sobs as he watches home movies and makes a point of never missing grief counseling.
The filmmaker observes the couple with a patient eye. Unafraid of long takes, of scenes that develop with the rhythms of lives slowed down and stricken by crippled psyches, Mitchell emphasizes the enormous, all-encompassing challenges of once simple tasks, like making dinner or doing laundry. His restrained, personal approach – captured in fluid close-ups, illuminated by clear, bright skies – lays bare the burdens of souls stuck as life goes on around them.
Family members, such as Becca’s mom Nat (Dianne Wiest), enter the couple’s orbit, but the heart of the story unfolds with Becca and Howie alone, at home, and searching for a way to preserve some element of that which they once had. Kidman and Eckhart commendably confront the challenge posed by the two-hander, fleetingly evoking the sense of the love that once filled their home and the shared anguish that has overtaken it.
The former, particularly, gives her fullest, most humane performance in some time, rendering new the common specter of a stoic, repressed character coping with a cauldron of strong feelings. It’s subtle, lived-in work, ideally meshed with Eckhart’s more nakedly emotional take on Howie.
The actors enhance the movie’s overarching, ephemeral quality, manifested in its still, studied rendition of the eternal truth that, as Psalm 144:4 states, “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” The sense of life’s fleeting joy running out permeates throughout the affecting shots of an empty home, an abandoned yard and the broken characters that inhabit them in Rabbit Hole, a film filled with the detritus of what once was and can never be again.
The Upside: The film is powerfully acted and directed with a careful, studied eye for life amid a tragedy’s aftermath.
The Downside: I guess if I had to choose a downside, it’d be that we’ve seen every bit of this movie before, though rarely put together as thoughtfully. Also, there’s an entire subplot involving Eckhart and a fellow grief counseling attendee played by Sandra Oh that flat out doesn’t work.
On the Side: As Jason, the teen driver who mistakenly killed Howie and Becca’s little boy, Miles Teller makes his feature film debut.