A film review by Craig J. Koban February 2, 2011

Rank:  #6


2010, PG-13, 91 mins.


Becca:  Nicole Kidman / Howie:  Aaron Eckhart / Nat:  Dianne Wiest / Izzy: Tammy Blanchard / Gaby:  Sandra Oh / Auggie:  Giancarlo Esposito / Jason:  Miles Teller

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell / Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his play

Being a single man with no children, I have absolutely no frame of reference for what it must feel like to lose a child.  John Cameron Mitchell’s RABBIT HOLE – based on the Tony Award winning play of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire - masterfully conveys what it does feel like.  All I know is this: no parent should outlive his or her children.  Having children is arguable one of the most emotional and euphorically gratifying experiences that any person can have, so I would humbly assume that when the opposite occurs – a child dies or is killed – then the experience of dealing with such an incalculable personal loss is too large to put into words.  It is a pain that no human being should have to bare. 

RABBIT HOLE is an unpretentious film made with modest and simplistic filmmaking resources, but what it has to say about dealing with loss speaks volumes.  This is one of the most uncompromising, heartbreaking, and difficult-to-watch dramas that has been released in 2010, but it also is one of the finest explorations into shared grief that I have ever seen.  The film has an almost surgical precision with its moments of raw and wrenching honesty as it deals with two universal human struggles: (a) how grief and mourning affects the individual in different ways and (b) how it can nearly erode a once flourishing and healthy relationship.   The enormity of RABBIT HOLE concerns how one couple’s loss of their young child as a result of a tragic accident serves to derail all of the happiness and prosperity they've experienced up until that point.  The brilliant thing about the film is that it never soft-pedals the material nor does it play up to shameless, wishy-washy soap opera sentimentality.  RABBIT HOLE is a total downer, but it’s a shrewdly observant and compassionately and delicately made downer.   

We never actually see the child in question die nor are we given a clear view as to what actually happened (although a late scene in the film infers – through some sparse, but evocative juxtaposition of images – the events that led up to it).  Doing that would only serve the purpose of sensationalizing the trauma of the child’s untimely demise.  RABBIT HOLE hones its interest squarely in the long period of tumultuous sadness and depression that follows the parents.  What we do know is that Becca and Howie (played respectively in two of the most quietly riveting and remarkably touching performances of the year by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) were once happy, financially secure, and well off parents to their 4-year-old son, that is until the child was taken from them during a freak automobile accident on their Hudon Valley, N.Y. suburban street.  Eight full months after the terrible accident they are still traumatized with heartache and misery: everywhere they go and everything they see reminds them of their boy.  The passion of their marriage has also been put on indefinite standstill: they no longer seem to desire one another and definitely do not have sex anymore.  Communication between the pair barely registers: all they share in common is how they feel about their son’s death, and it plagues their everyday existence.   

They try various failed methods of coping with and dealing with the grief, like attending group couple therapy sessions, which are headed by the chatty and sympathetic Gabby (the very good Sandra Oh), but Becca in particular finds the whole experience a loathsome waste of her time (she particularly detests how one couple states that God simply took their child because “He need another angel,” to which she drolly fires back, “Then why didn’t God just make another angel?  He is God, after all.”).  Even though Becca refuses to attend any more meetings, Howie decides to persevere and continues to attend them by himself, mostly because, I think, he finds a caring and considerate person to talk to in Gabby. 

Howie at least seems to be making efforts to manage and move on, but Becca is much more stubborn: she lives her days in a perpetual state on regret, remorse, and denial and has little time or patience to let those close in her life help her.  Her time with her husband immediately reminds her of her son, but even her relationship with her mother (Diane Wiest, both a figure of humor and pathos in the film) and sister (Tammy Blanchard) don’t provide her with much solace.  Her mother spends much of her time trying to draw comparisons to Becca’s son’s death to that of her own, which Becca deeply resents, seeing as her brother died a 30-year-old crack addict.  Becca’s sister announcing a rather unplanned pregnancy to the family also seems to wound Becca, seeing as she finds her to be somewhat immature to raise a baby, notwithstanding that, deep down, she perhaps detests the idea of someone having a child that did not really plan on it.   

Realizing that her never-ending period of anguish does not seem to be ending – which also seems to be slowly destroying her marriage  – Becca engages in a highly peculiar brand of self therapy: At first, she sort of stalks the teenager that accidentally killed her son, Jason (Miles Teller) until she finally meets up with him face to face.  Now, in a less sophisticated and honest drama the altercation between Becca and Jason could have erupted in her hysterically placing blame on the young man, but the screenplay here does an elegant and poignant thing: they go to a nearby park, sit down, and calmly and rationally – as best as they can under the awkward circumstances – reveal all of their subverted feelings over the boy's death.  Becca is clearly a fragile and wounded figure for her loss, but Jason is also a person that has experienced great personal hardships as well for his actions. 

It is the scenes between Kidman and Teller that are the focal point for me in RABBIT HOLE, and to watch the pair delicately and sincerely give and take with one another in an effort to mutual heal each other is powerfully touching.  It also highlights how astoundingly well the film rightfully suggests that grief works differently for every person and how each of us goes to on a different journey to bring about an end to it.  The film is so compelling for how it establishes such an unlikely connection between the shy and soft-spoken teen raddled by guilt with the mother that is consumed with sadness over his actions that cost her a son.  It unavoidably hints at a truism that most viewers will, no doubt, accept: healing comes often during the most unexpected times and unforeseen places.  Becca’s path towards healing seems like an unusual one (especially to her husband), but the significance here is that it is her journey and only she can take it.   

The performances here are all decisive when it comes to echoing not only the film’s themes, but for wholeheartedly and believably suggesting the massive anguish and troubles that these characters go through.  Kidman has carved out a career of one refined and exemplary performance after the other, but I think she finds a new depth to her craft playing Becca: There is remarkably subtlety with how she shows Becca as a woman outwardly trying to be well adjusted while inwardly she is tearing herself up with endless feelings of misery and self-loathing.  Eckhart also has the tricky task of portraying a man that experiences a similar pain on a much different level (he tries to move on, even though the hurt still lingers within him) and the way he shows initial understanding and compassion towards his wife that later morphs into and mixed feelings of anger and hostile frustration is stirring.  There is not one moment in the film when the interplay between the pair doesn’t feel devastatingly genuine.  The portal into the film for the viewers is to immerse themselves and experience the bewildering maelstrom of conflicting emotions of this couple, and that’s what makes RABBIT HOLE ring with such a vigilance and immediacy.     

Some people that I talked to have expressed zero interest in seeing this film because it would dishearten them to no end.   Yes, RABBIT HOLE deals with a tremendously depressing subject, but it does so with such an authenticity and compassion that, in the end, it ironically becomes an modestly uplifting drama.  Another thing that should be noted is how funny the film is at times in the ways that tortured people often use humor as a defensive coping mechanism in order to fend off their own despondency, which also helps to deflect accusations that RABBIT HOLE is not positive minded in any way and is just grief-porn.  Oftentimes, we use nail-biting wit amidst the worst of scenarios largely because we just don’t know how else to cope.  

Ultimately, RABBIT HOLE is tortuous at times for the emotional sea-saw it places viewers on, but not many films in 2010 have dealt with such an unforgivably disastrous and nerve-racking topic by infusing in it with a combination of astringent honesty and tender optimism.  The end of the film does not implicitly tell us that Becca and Howie are on a clearly delineated path to curing their wounds and fractured marriage…just that they trying and are on the path.  Could we possibly expect anything else from these people under their hellish circumstances?  Again, I may never experience what losing a child would be like, but RABBIT HOLE is a rare breed of enrapturing drama for allowing me to comprehend the enormity and complexity of what it feels like. 

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