Losing a child is painful in the real world, but in the sphere of cinema, it’s hardly breaking new ground. In order to communicate the emotional trauma of such an event, movies have to take the material in different and unexpected directions. “Rabbit Hole” is a success story, presenting the story of husband and wife affected by the preventable death of their four-year-old son in entirely different ways. John Cameron Mitchell takes the great theatrical aspects of David Lindsey-Abaire’s Pulitizer Prize-winning play and reminds us the power that great dialogue can have while also using the great resources of film to supplement the already incredibly powerful film.
Nearing the one-year anniversary of their son Danny’s passing, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are still reeling. Caught in the unenviable conundrum of choosing to mourn or move on, each find a different way to cope with the void in their lives. Becca tries to find life by acting like the hole isn’t there, removing the traces of Danny that remind her that he is gone. She finds solace, strangely, through talking with the teenager that hit her son. Becca also has to deal with the pregnancy of her irresponsible sister (Tammy Blanchard), which only complicates her volatile emotional state, and the intervention of her mother (Dianne Wiest), eager to offer advice after going through the loss of a son in her own right.
Howie, on the other hand, tries to hang on to the fading memories of his son, particularly by watching a video of Danny on his phone. Rather than try to adjust to life without his son, he advocates starting a new life altogether. He pitches selling their house and having another child, neither of which are received well by his wife. Howie has faith in the traditional methods of dealing with grief, holding onto the belief that the group therapy sessions can work long after Becca gives up on them. When those who look to religion to solve their problems finally drive her away from the group for good, he strikes up a friendship with an eight-year veteran (Sandra Oh) still looking to make peace with the loss of her child.
Cameron Mitchell does a great job of visually supporting the movie, giving it a cinematic flair that shows why the story deserves to receive the screen treatment. But there’s really no doubt from the outset that “Rabbit Hole” is successful because the actors are on top of their game, and boy, do they deliver. They get some great assistance from Lindsey-Abaire’s rich dialogue and thematically packed script, but so much of the movie’s power comes from what is written in between the lines. This is the territory filled in by the actors, and there’s never a moment when they are off the beat.
Nicole Kidman takes Becca down to her raw core, and there are truly no holds barred in this go-for-broke performance. Her portrayal of grief is far from predictable, some days subtle and some days so brutally up-front about her emotions that it’s shocking. Her desperation and anguish in her quest to find some shred of happiness are made so tangible by Kidman that it’s impossible to watch “Rabbit Hole” without being somehow affected by her, be it by her crying meltdown or by her reflective moments in silence.
The movie doesn’t entirely belong to Kidman, though. Dianne Weist as Becca’s mother has an important emotional role in the movie, as she has found serenity after the death of her son and Becca’s brother. She often functions as the voice of reason, telling the grieving couple that it will eventually be alright. Whether she is the voice of the author is something to debate, but it’s for certain that she is the light at the end of the brutal yet stirring tunnel that is “Rabbit Hole.”
Perhaps the movie’s biggest surprise, which in the end really isn’t that surprising, is the tour de force delivered by Aaron Eckhart. He’s been making a name for himself by playing smooth operators with a tinge of darkness like Nick Naylor in “Thank You for Smoking” and Harvey Dent in ‘The Dark Knight.” By contrast, he takes off the gloves in “Rabbit Hole” and wrestles with a character that wears his emotions on his sleeves. Watching his outbursts of rage, sorrow, and agony are just that much more powerful because we’ve never seen Eckhart do anything like it before. He may very well be the sharpest part of the three-prong approach “Rabbit Hole” takes to analyzing grief and mourning, which is guaranteed to leave some sort of imprint on you. A- /