The bravery of simply going on
Based on a play by David Lindsay-Abaire that received five Tony Award nominations and the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Rabbit Hole is an elegant, understated film that explores with nuance and humor the lives of a loving couple eight months after a terrible tragedy — the accidental death of their young son, Danny. Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and Becca (Nicole Kidman) are a handsome pair with a big house on the water. He has a good job and is a power squash player. She used to work at Sotheby’s auction house in Manhattan but now spends her time at home. Both are ridden with guilt, anger, sadness, and the burden of memories they cling to even while knowing they must move on if they are to survive. Like T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, Rabbit Hole depicts protagonists whose triumph and bravery is merely to continue living ordinary lives when that has seemed impossible. Edward and Lavinia, at the end of Eliot’s play, simply give a cocktail party. Howie and Becca end by giving a cook-out. In a brilliantly simple final sequence, we see scenes from that cook-out, with Howie’s earlier voice-over to Becca telling her what such an event will be like and how they will be able to get through it. When Becca tentatively takes Howie’s hand as they sit in lawn chairs in the final shot, with their social evening on the lawn drawing to a close, it’s tremendously moving. This is grownup, serious stuff, on a level with Assayas’ Summer Hours. And it’s obviously strong competition for the end-of-year drama awards in movies. It’s such a poised, muted movie there’s no grandstanding or sentimentalizing. But tears are shed, and you’ll probably shed a few when you watch.
Rabbit Hole isn’t a tract on the meaning of life or a manual on the grieving process. It instead focuses on things that happen, steps Howie and Becca take that gradually lead them to a new place. There are moments that are quirky and unusual and not without humor. Providing splendid performances, Kidman and Eckhart get impeccable backup the rest of the cast. Foremost among these is a profound Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother, Nat. With her, Becca moves from clashes toward communion. Becca snaps at Nat at first for comparing her grown brother’s (Becca’s uncle’s) accidental death from a heroin overdose to the little boy’s sudden demise. But Nat eventually can tell Becca about grieving from long experience. Becca reacts with anger at first with her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), whose arrest for a barroom fight and unexpected pregnancy arouse Becca’s ire and disapproval. Eventually, Becca realizes the healthiest thing she can do is reach out to Izzy, and to her friends.
The husband and wife attend a grief support group, but Becca can’t take it, lashing out at a man who mouths what she thinks is an empty religious cliché about angels. Howe keeps on going to the group alone, where he meets and begins getting stoned with Gaby (Sandra Oh, good as always). It seems he’s going to escape into an extramarital relationship. Becca takes a different odd tack. She follows the teenage boy, Jason (a spectacularly poised Miles Teller), whose car killed her son. They have a kind of communion too — and a comic book Jason is creating offers hints at worlds beyond, scientifically conceived. A dog that played a part in the accident gets retrieved from Nat’s house by Howie.
Without having seen the play one can see both how it could be a terrific one, and yet the film offers more. It not only expands some characters like the grieving group, and provides more information about the boy Jason, the camera often providing intimacy. The film, following Lindsay-Abaire’s adaptatin of his own play, also makes the difficulty of dealing with loss more vivid, specific, physical, and heartrending by showing us the drawings, the toddler clothes, the toys that the couple have to decide what to do with. They house itself becomes a painful reminder to them. Becca and Howie both admit the boy’s fingerprints are all over it. But by the end of the movie, their cookout has become a reality. They’ve survived.
That’s all that happens, really. But the beauty of Rabbit Hole is in its details and moments, some of them not in the play at all, a house-showing to potential buyers gone wrong, a disastrous erasure on an iPhone, a surprise encounter in the library, a cake on a back seat. Though Eckhart has some scenes of violent anger and Kidman does her share of uncontrollable sobbing, both actors show opposite emotions as well, while epitomizing control and coolness (as they both, as actors, typically do), thus conveying a concise sense of the effort to avoid collapse and keep going on.
This is a sad story but also a hopeful one, which is signaled by its particularity, its little touches of unexpected imagination (like the teenager’s comic book), and its startling humor. The latter may help explain why a director of campy, gay, and overtly sexual stuff (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus), with this terrific cast, was a good match for Rabbit Hole after all.
DIRECTOR: JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL
WRITER: DAVID LINDSEY-ABAIRE
CAST: NICOLE KIDMAN, AARON ECKHART, DIANNE WIEST