Grief in cinema is not always very pretty, even if you see pretty people bawling their eyes out and suffering in all-encompassing sadness. Rabbit Hole‘s premise is nothing new – the death of a child usually makes for a brooding, character-driven movie about parental grief, whether it’s in psychological horror domain seen in Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland trying to recover from post-traumatic death-of-a-child stress in Venice, or gripping melodrama in Clint Eastwood’s Changeling with Angelina Jolie launching a crusade to find her lost son, or perhaps existential psychobabble in Lars von Trier’s grief-porn Antichristwith Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe blaming each other for their kid’s demise and slicing up genitals in the woodlands. John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole shouldn’t work, or end up as plain clichéd, as there couldn’t be possibly anything more to say about couples mourning over the loss of a child. But it works, and rather beautifully, and ends up being a subtle, nuanced, carefully studied exploration into what makes grief somehow bearable.Rabbit Hole isn’t merely about suffering, despite of the profound sadness of its subject matter, or being deeply buried in an emotional underground, to use the title’s metaphor, but this film is about coming to terms with the loss of a loved one and subsequently finding the light and emerging out of the dark tunnel.
That says a lot for a film that deals some dark issues, the ultimate parent’s nightmare, yet somehow manages to be hopeful and sensitive. Structurally, the action begins in media res, months after the child’s death. We don’t get to see the tragic accident, not until a brief, sensitively handled flashback later. We plunge headlong into a suburban Connecticut couple’s seemingly handsome yet mundane life – Nicole Kidman’s Becca kills time by eternally pruning the garden and baking homemade pies and Aaron Eckhart’s Howie carries on daily officework routines. Yet the narrative unveils cracks in the portrait through various moments – Becca gets subliminally furious as her neighbour accidentally stumps on her newly planted rosebush, cracks up in a group counselling after a remark about God and banishes all trace of toys, lunchboxes, drawings and every other trace of her deceased son out of the house. Howie deals with it differently, angry at Becca’s insistence, wanting their son’s memorabilia to be left where they are.
Kidman, whose curriculum vitae as of late has been terribly misguided (due to an unmoving forehead, depends on which tabloid you read), hasn’t delivered a strong performance in a few years, except for the vastly unseen Margot at the Wedding and Baz Lhurrman’s misunderstood Australia. But here she comes back with a solid return to form, perhaps her best performance since The Hours. It’s a galvanised, complex, multi-layered piece of screen acting, proving her skills in intimate human dramas. Her Becca Corbett is doesn’t stereotype the ‘grieving Mum’ character, but rather gives reasons to her emotional deep-freeze, whether it be lashing at her own mother (a terrific Diane Wiest) and grouchy with her own pregnant sister. Kidman wrings out all manners of expressions rarely seen in this actress these days, and she makes Becca believable, even loathesome and somehow sympathetic. She finds curious solace in the beleaguered teenager driving the car that accidentally killed her son. In other lesser films, this would have turned to some sort of psycho-friendship, but here Becca doesn’t do scape-goating. Instead, both of them feels linked by fate, albeit a terrible one. Eckhart also stands his own ground, giving a heartfelt performance as the husband, grappling with ways in which he could deal with the loss whilst never letting go of his wife. Director Mitchell doesn’t play for all-out, overwrought theatrics from his actors, but rather wrings out emotions and character motivations through a deft skill of observation and naturalistic handling. ‘Less is more’ must be his guiding philosophy in filmmaking.
With its painful and sad excursion into parental grief, Rabbit Hole somehow provides hope in distress and beauty in the breakdown without reducing to schmaltz or diluting its honesty. This is a subtle, nuanced little film with a bruised humanity, rooted with two compelling central performances by Kidman and Eckhart.