Director : John Cameron Mitchell
Screenplay : David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Nicole Kidman (Becca Corbett), Aaron Eckhart (Howie Corbett), Dianne Wiest (Nat), Miles Teller (Jason), Tammy Blanchard (Izzy), Sandra Oh (Gaby), Giancarlo Esposito (Auggie), Jon Tenney (Rick), Stephen Mailer (Kevin), Mike Doyle (Craig), Roberta Wallach (Rhonda), Patricia Kalember (Peg), Ali Marsh (Donna), Yetta Gottesman (Ana), Colin Mitchell (Sam), Deidre Goodwin (Reema), Julie Lauren (Debbie)
There are few things more inexplicable than the death of a child. Death itself is a difficult enough concept--the severity and finality of it--but when death comes to someone who has only begun to experience life, it is particularly devastating, the kind of blow that can shake the very foundations of one’s belief in all that is good and right. In Rabbit Hole, we witness the aftermath of a four-year-old child’s death in the lives of the boy’s parents, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckart), whose wealthy suburban existence is little consolation in the face of such tragedy. With the exception of a few brief, wordless flashbacks and some barely glimpsed video on an iPhone, we do not see them during their happier times eight months earlier, when their family was whole; rather, we are thrust directly into the middle of their grief, only gradually learning what has happened and why.
As a raw and complex character study that challenges our identification and sympathies at every turn, Rabbit Hole is a frequently powerful testament to the ways in which we all cope differently with life’s tragedies and how those coping mechanisms can tear us apart as much as they can soothe the pain. For Becca, her inclination is to coil up inside herself and resist everyone around her while also denying the well of anger that tends to explode at inopportune times (at her sister’s birthday part, at a grocery store). When we first see her, she is planting flowers in her backyard, a symbolic gesture of cultivating life in the absence of her son, and we don’t realize until much later on just how traumatizing it is when a well-meaning neighbor accidentally steps on one of them while trying to invite Becca over for a barbeque. Like all other invitations, Becca rejects the barbeque (politely, of course), just as she rejects group therapy with Howie, who wants to reach out to others and find connection to fill the void in their lives.
Their opposing means of dealing with their child’s death cannot sustain; having entered into their lives eight months after the fact, we are already witness to the increasing strains in their marriage, with Becca constantly pushing Howie away while he is drawn increasingly to Gaby (Sandra Oh), a woman from the therapy group who may offer the comfort and connection he so ardently desires even as she represents the potential black hole of grief (she and her clearly exasperated husband have been attending the group for eight years and counting). Just as Howie is drawn to Gaby, Becca finds herself being drawn toward Jason (Miles Teller), a quiet, introspective teenage boy. The screenplay by David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning play) allows their relationship to unfold gradually, revealing only halfway through why Becca follows the boy to the library and parks her car on the street near his bus stop.
Becca’s emotional situation is further complicated by her family, including her mother (Dianne Wiest) who lost her own son 10 years earlier and infuriates Becca by constantly comparing their losses. Becca’s younger sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), is everything Becca is not (wild, immature, undisciplined), thus her announcement that she is pregnant gives rise to all manner of conflicted feelings within Becca, who clearly strove to be a “perfect” mother and was punished for it.
What emerges by the end of the film is a fine sense of interwoven tragedy, how a singular event is never confined to a small number of people, but rather branches out, touching (and in some ways devastating) lives at great remove. It is also has moments of powerful and even troubling honesty that most American films studiously avoid, particularly the tense telephone exchange between Becca and her mother about the role of God in their lives: Becca rejects faith because she can’t fathom her own loss even though her mother found solace in it. It is just one more way in which Becca closes herself off, but it challenges us to continue thinking about issues that a singular film can’t possibly hope to contain.
Yet, the film’s core remains focused on Howie and Becca and the painful question of whether their loss will finally tear them apart. This provides plenty of dramatic fodder for Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman, both of whom are outstanding in their respective roles. Eckhart’s square chin and thick features provide an outward display of strength, yet he is a character who is constantly frustrated, as his attempts to reach out to Becca are regularly thwarted, leaving him stranded. Kidman’s cool reserve, which has frequently been a hindrance in her roles, is tailor-made for the role of Becca, which makes her emotional breakdowns all the more moving; we literally feel her crack. The direction by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus) seems deliberately mundane in the visual sense (it’s not quite a Lifetime movie with A-list actors, but it’s close), although he manages the film’s drama well, keeping Howie and Becca’s spoken and unspoken miseries from spiraling into full-blown hysterics. Even though the characters are at times inscrutable in both their misery and their stabs at redeveloping a sense of normalcy, the film works because it respects the nature of emotional devastation and the complicated path one must navigate out of it.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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