The real hell of the human condition is not our capacity to suffer but our ability to survive that suffering, to keep living every day in a world that feels like it should have ended. The dark side of loss is resilience, and it’s this shattering truth about the nature of trauma that director John Cameron Mitchell deftly explores in Rabbit Hole, an explosive, wrenching, brilliantly observed story about a husband and wife wrestling with the memory of their dead child. Their grief and shock is only the beginning; the film finds them dealing with the loss eight months after the fact, and the screenplay from David Lindsay-Abaire (based on his play) is packed with breathtaking moments in which the characters are confronted all over again with the random cruelty of the world and the fact that, despite their best attempts and truest wishes, they have to go on living in it. This is Mitchell’s third feature, after Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus; the films are so different from one another that any attempt to concoct a through-line other than “Mitchell is a pretty talented director” would be a total put-on, so let’s not even try. He’s made a mature and accomplished film, with stellar performances that embrace all the messy and horrible ways that loss can bleed into the lives of the survivors. It is, perhaps more than anything else, an honest film, even brutally so. There are moments here that are utterly cinematic yet feel plucked from everyday life, and conversations that have all the battered slang and loaded statements you only get from knowing someone for years. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking film that refuses easy answers, offering only the chance to look for hope even though it might never be found.
Those tangled emotions are present from the first frame. Since it’s based on a play, the film has the luxury of being economical with its characterizations and introductions, and almost every gesture or word is designed to get at the core of a particular character. In the opening scene, Becca (Nicole Kidman) is working in her garden and trying to avoid the awkward social invitations of a neighbor to a cookout that evening, and the location is a testament to Becca’s ongoing battle with planting new life and trying to make it grow despite its fragility. When the neighbor accidentally steps on one of the newly set flowers, it’s not just a faux pas; it’s a reminder to Becca how easily a small life can be snuffed out, and on some level she feels again the pain of the death of Danny, her 4-year-old son who died eight months earlier in a traffic accident. The accident is practically a third wheel in her marriage, and she and her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), can’t talk about anything else without coming back to it. The screenplay never forces these connections or moments, though: rather, it sharply observes that everything around Becca and Howie has the ability to remind them of their son, and watches as they helplessly tear open old wounds.
One of the film’s great strengths is that no single character is given a moral high ground, or blessed with a “right” way to grieve. Becca is brittle and angry and unable to sit still during the group therapy Howie urges her to attend, and when another couple talks about their own loss in terms of “God’s plan,” she snaps at them with no remorse. Howie, on the other hand, is doing everything he can to hang on to the physical representations of his son’s memory, from drawings to clothes to cell phone videos. For him, moving forward means holding on; for Becca, it means cutting loose. Lindsay-Abaire’s script winds them up, establishes their incompatibility, and lets the inherent emotional energy do the rest.
Kidman and Eckhart are the center of the film, and they both give strong performances punctuated by moments of amazing, horrifying honesty. Speaking with her mother, Becca refuses the older woman’s pleas to turn to God for help, saying that he’s a “sadistic prick” and adding, “‘Worship me and I’ll treat you like shit.’ No wonder you like him, he sounds just like Dad.” They’re both laid low by Becca’s statement, delivered casually and quickly but packing nuclear levels of hate and desperation. In two short lines she sums up everything she’s feeling and the myriad ways it’s roped to her past, yet Mitchell isn’t passing judgment on her. Later on, Howie is showing their home to a family interested in buying, and when they get to his son’s old room — still loaded with toys and books — he doesn’t lie about what happened, or fudge it, or act overly sad. He’s simply direct and unguarded, talking about how he forgets Danny isn’t here any more or still sees him around the corner. It’s so frank and revealing it feels almost illicit to watch, as if we haven’t earned the right to see someone bare his soul so easily, and Eckhart is pitch-perfect. This is a film loaded with small, devastating moments.
Mitchell’s tone is spot-on for almost the entire film; the few wobbly moments come at the expense of the score by Anton Sanko (“Big Love”), which feels derivative of similar scores by Thomas Newman meant to evoke suburban turmoil. There are just too many plucky, major-key moments; yes, the film has its scattered jokes and moments of relief, but it’s still a story about a dead toddler, and the score needs to be far more muted than it is. It’s beautifully shot, though, with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco nicely capturing certain images (a sad glimpse of the few boxes that are all that remain of Danny’s presence) and highlighting the dimness of the couple’s home in comparison with the world around them. The rest of the cast is strong, as well, particularly Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother, dealing with her own grief and trying to help her daughter as best she can. Miles Teller is also wonderful as Jason, a high schooler whose relationship to Becca and Howie is revealed with such skill and impact that I’m leery of even discussing it.
What makes the film so compelling is the way it convincingly conveys the stakes for Becca and Howie as they try to figure out what to do with their lives. The action is largely limited to one neighborhood; there aren’t that many characters; no one figures out quite how to overcome their pain. (Spoiler?) But for all its superficial stasis, Rabbit Hole expertly captures the emotional highs and lows of a man and woman going through something profound and horrible and life-changing, and it argues that small changes, brief flecks of grace, aren’t worth abandoning simply because they don’t outweigh the pain. It’s a wrenching experience, and a real one.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.