Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart can't touch bottom in Rabbit Hole.
Rabbit Hole. Written by David Lindsay-Abaire. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell.
Grief has an odor. It sticks to its victims with tenacious power, and it can be unbearable even for those with the best intentions to help. Those afflicted by sudden, unfathomable loss—like those finding envy-making success—are often surprised to find some relatives and old friends drifting away. The resulting loneliness is often at its worst in those times long after, when we wonder why we—or they—aren’t “over it by now.”
Though grief is as inevitable a part of life as love, it doesn’t tend to get many Hollywood movies. All of which makes John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s play Rabbit Hole a welcome anomaly—a modern weepie that doesn’t involve a chronic disease or lovelorn vampires. It’s the best movie of its kind since Sarah Polley explored similarly heavy themes in Away From Her (2008).
Abair’s story concerns Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart), an affluent Westchester couple still reeling from the death of their four year old son. It’s eight months on now, but they are nowhere near “get over it” territory. Becca, still unable to comprehend her loss, spends her time at home baking pies and planting shrubs with angry energy. Howie, who feels himself becoming an afterthought in her life, is getting restive in their loveless marriage. He’s still more exasperated when, for solace, Becca seeks out the only one who can understand: not her husband, but Jason (James Teller), the remorseful teenager at the wheel of the car that killed their boy.
No doubt there’s wisdom and power in Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning play. The character of Becca, who will stomach neither the pat consolations of religious faith nor the squeamishness of her friends, is the other face of grief—not just depressed, but ready to lash out with unthinking cruelty at those around her. Between her and her mother (Dianne Wiest) there’s not only a gulf of age and experience, but a whiff of class friction that only magnifies their mutual disapproval. All their scenes, and those between Kidman and Teller, are telling and truthful.
Of course, one can always quibble. In comparison with what seems like a tailor-made star turn for Kidman, the script seems less interested in Eckhart’s character, who is mostly just left as a watchful bystander or an unloved schlump drifting toward infidelity. Kidman is indeed terrific, and amply deserves her Oscar nomination. Yet she’s almost too ethereally beautiful a presence to seem real here—a compulsive baker of cakes and pies who, after eight miserable months confronted with a kitchen full of snacks, never gained a pound or picked up a zit.
But by the end such objections dwindle. John Cameron Mitchell—best known for directing and starring as the unwilling transsexual hero(ine) in Hedwig and the Angry Inch—again shows a sure hand dealing with themes of loss and anger. He is sure not to lack for subjects in times like these.
Copyright 2011 Nicholas Nicastro