When a child dies, what comes next for the parents left behind? Grief is inevitable, but should it become eternal? Is there hope for happiness or at least some sense of composure in the midst of ungodly tragedy? “Rabbit Hole” analyzes the messy, raw emotional aftermath of loss, and how the eventual road to recovery is not defined by simple acts of forgiveness, but a rolling effort of comfort emerging from the most unlikely of sources. “Rabbit Hole” is a beautiful picture of immense power, treating the bleakness at hand with sublime variants of intimate human response.
Reeling from the death of their young son, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are struggling to move past the misfortune and reclaim what’s left of their lives. While Howie pursues traditional channels of group therapy and communication, Becca elects to steel herself, unable to recognize a direction for her grief outside of an antagonistic attitude toward her friends and family, including her opinionated mother (Dianne Wiest) and directionless sister (Tammy Blanchard), who’s recently become pregnant. With their marriage crumbling, the couple splits off in two directions: Howie seeks soothing temptation with a fellow grieving parent (Sandra Oh), while Becca stumbles upon Jason (Miles Teller), the teen tied to the couple’s woe, who funnels his shame into an elaborate comic book about family desperation and parallel universes.
After the malfunctioning glitter gun of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and the depressing artistic freefall of the insufferable art-porn abortion, “Shortbus,” director John Cameron Mitchell hits an unexpectedly humane note of life with “Rabbit Hole.” His lust to provoke holstered, Mitchell takes on the 2005 award-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who scripts), bringing the tremble and tears to the screen with a startling sense of grace. This is not an easy story to examine, but Mitchell is fearless, exploring the hurt with sympathy and integrity few films would even attempt. The temptation for a mawkish enterprise with syrupy melodrama must’ve been unbearable for Mitchell, but the filmmaker issues an incredibly impactful offering that probes into the suffocating layers of grief, dissecting the instincts that make people pull away from each other in their time of need.
Becca is a complex, colorful character of misery, yet Kidman, in a career best performance, locates arenas of behavior that sustain fallibility without soap opera cliché. A former career woman who took on the role of housewife, Becca is confronted with a world that’s moved on without her. Without the gravitational pull of her child, the parent is left out in the cold, frustrated by her mother’s attempts to relate to her woe (Becca’s bother overdosed on heroin at age 30) and Howie’s therapeutic maneuvering — his requests to move on, to possibly try again with another baby, are met with disgust. Kidman strikes that balance between exasperation and denial masterfully, unraveling in a contained manner that brings utter realism while tending to the dramatic demands of the story. She’s riveting, particularly when Becca is hit with shockwaves of reality, slowly understanding that she’s stopped living, the greatest personal disservice imaginable. Kidman also volleys Lindsay-Abaire’s darkly comic additions with Eckhart like a Wimbledon champ, articulating the character’s developing atheism that vomits forth at the most inopportune moments.
If “Rabbit Hole” sounds dire, I assure you the film isn’t a morose viewing experience. Mitchell goes out of his way to preserve the soul of the piece, humanizing the theatrical origins of the material through abraded performances, evocative suburban New York locations, and an empathetic score from Anton Sanko. Fearful of sheer gloom, Mitchell elevates “Rabbit Hole” into a movement of engaging vulnerability, cutting the unavoidable tear-jerking with odd detours into scientific questioning, where Becca and Jason openly discuss the fantasy of a parallel universe to soothe themselves, dreaming of a world without the punishing anguish that chains them to the earth.
“Rabbit Hole” never loses itself to schmaltz or bombast, keeping on course with characters that develop in unexpectedly haunting and endearing ways over a tight runtime of 90 minutes. It’s a heartbreaker, but in graciously artistic ways; a stirring screen purging of the highest order. Who knew John Cameron Mitchell had it in him?