“Things aren’t nice anymore,” Becca (Nicole Kidman) scolds her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), for trying to loosen things up a little with a shoulder massage here and some Al Green there. It’s been at least eight months since they had sex, because it’s been exactly eight months since they lost their son in a tragic accident. No, things have not been nearly as nice since then.
He’s kept the car seat in his sedan, cherishes home movies shot with his phone and wants to bring his dog back that they gave away. She just wants to pack up all of their son’s belongings and give them away – she’s convinced that her newly pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard) would want them and that it’s not creepy. Howie brings Becca along to a group meeting for grieving parents, but she can’t quite bite her tongue when a couple assures others that their child’s death was all part of God’s plan. She takes a bit of a hiatus after that, understandably, and while Howie bonds with professional wallower, Gaby (Sandra Oh), Becca finds unlikely solace in talking to the teen (Miles Teller) responsible for their pain.
It’s the grieving-parent formula, the recipe for a dozen depressing domestic dramas in the tradition of Ordinary People. But thanks to the sure hand of director John Cameron Mitchell and the sharp words of playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole eschews much of the hysterics in favor of a gentle and surprisingly funny look at how a couple might cope with that impossible burden.
In adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue maintains a sort of theatrical efficiency without ever coming off as stagy. More surprising is Mitchell’s graceful approach to the material, leagues away from the freewheeling nature of his previous features, Shortbus and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He observes these characters with no small amount of compassion as they go about their lives without really going about their lives; he’s like Todd Field without the smirk. In technical regard, the picture couldn’t be tidier. The cinematography by frequent Mitchell collaborator Frank G. DeMarco is warm throughout, with Anton Sanko’s serene score complementing it every step of the way.
If anything, the idyllic look and sound amplify the emotional emptiness of Becca and Howie’s home and makes their occasional outbursts all the more intrusive. Kidman’s prickly persona has never served her better, as her character’s evasive nature gives way to self- righteous frustration. In a bit of slight gender subversion, she’s in denial while Howie’s the one who clings to every remnant of not just their son but of their once-happy marriage.
Making every effort to seem well adjusted as his character stifles just as much grief, Eckhart does quietly wounded well. Oh, Teller and Dianne Wiest (as Becca’s mother) all contribute similarly delicate work on their ends, and Mitchell counters the collective vulnerability on display with a welcome dose of humor.
Granted, grief in real life is not picturesque, but grief onscreen is rarely this far from phony. Rabbit Hole is a tremendously tender film, full of terrific performances and directed by someone who can actually convince us that – contrary to Becca’s belief – things could be nice again.
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