There are few film genres as exhausting as the grief movie, perhaps because grief itself, even in secondhand form, is possibly the most enervating emotion one can feel. Rabbit Hole
acts as an exploration of that odd stage between grief and acceptance, where you feel the necessity of letting go of your pain and moving on with your life mixed with guilt at the thought of actually being capable of moving on. It’s an intensely personal state, but it’s also something that everyone has been through, and as such it’s rather difficult to dramatize; one false note in a script or performance often manages to be jarring and off-putting, tainting whatever good there is to be had. Rabbit Hole
, based on the stage play by David Lindsay-Abaire
, manages to avoid such missteps with a fine script and excellent, raw performances.
As the saying goes, all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Becca ( Nicole Kidman
) and Howie ( Aaron Eckhart
) are decidedly unhappy. Eight months removed from the death of their four-year-old son, they move around each other in their suddenly too-big home, having left the raw pain of their loss behind but still trying to cope with the deep ache that followed. Howie seems to be doing better than Becca, who appears intent on needling everyone else in her life until they share in her misery; her petty cruelties here are somewhat less abrasive than those of Kidman’s character in Margot at the Wedding
, but they still sting. They talk about their son, but not in any constructive way. Howie finds group therapy helpful, or at least he thinks he does; Becca is put off by “all that God talk."
Set over a period of a few months, Rabbit Hole
is more about small moments than it is about sweeping change. Becca offers her son’s clothing to her pregnant sister, who says that it’d be weird to see her son running around in a dead boy’s clothes. She drops the clothes into a Goodwill container, and a camera shot from inside the slot catches Kidman’s face as she looks in; you can see her wanting to just dive in after the bag and grab it back. Howie’s attempt at initiating sex--it’s been a dry eight months--devolves into a screaming match. Becca slaps a stranger in a supermarket because she won’t buy her son Fruit Roll-ups.
This is, at times, an amazingly awkward film to watch, if you’re the sort who finds arguments uncomfortable to witness, but it’s worth fighting through that sensation, mostly due to the talents of Kidman and Eckhart. I’ve generally thought of Eckhart as an excellent, if broad actor, but he dials everything down here and gives a fantastic turn as a man who’s ready to move forward, but unable to see how to bring his wife along, and possibly unsure if he wants to. Kidman is as precise as ever in her starring role, burying her emotions inside instead of wearing them on her sleeve. There are still tears and histrionics, but they don’t feel as showy as you might expect, given the subject matter.
They’re both aided by the adaptations that Lindsay-Abaire and director John Cameron Mitchell
made to the stage play; many plays that are adapted to film feel confined to small locations (e.g. Glengarry Glen Ross
), but they’ve expanded the script and added characters, and let Becca and Howie escape their house more often than they did in the play, which goes a long way towards opening it up. Like the best play adaptations, the writing is, at times, startlingly sharp; I especially liked this late-film exchange between Becca and Howie, who we get the sense are just tired
of the pain that they’ve gone through:
“What are we going to do?”
This kind of sly humor pops up here and there in the film, although perhaps not as often as the filmmakers would lead you to believe; this isn’t what you could really call a dramedy, in other words, but the few funny moments do at least allow the audience an escape valve from the tension that’s engendered from the rest of the conversations. It’s a welcome tension, though, and it feels earned; there’s nothing cheap about this film.
As a portrait of grief and pain and blame and guilt, Rabbit Hole
is tough watching at times. With a great script and some superb performances, though, it’s also worth
watching. Its resonance may depend on how empathetic you are to its characters’ emotions, but even aside from that consideration, it’s one of the best film studies of grief I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s well-executed enough to not make the experience of watching it feel masochistic, as some films about mourning can get. In a season with some amazing and emotionally-wrought dramas, Rabbit Hole
might not be a must-see-it-in-theaters film, but you won’t regret the trip should you decide to make it.