Ignore the motion pictures’ rating systems. Rabbit Hole, a film that has Nicole Kidman debuting in the producer’s chair, is a hard PG-13. But as inappropriate as this might be for young children, somehow, it’s even harder on parents — in fact, it’s a punishing tearjerker that, in all likelihood, has its sights set on cleaning up during awards season.
Rabbit Hole, simply put, is a parent’s worst nightmare. Following the post-apocalyptic lives of Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) — a couple coping with the loss of their young son, who was hit by a car after following the family dog into the street — this is about suffering. Not the root of it. Not the resolution. This film is strictly procedural; it aims at capturing the couple’s pain.
The film immediately establishes the impact of the loss — the couple’s sex lives are ruined, and their social lives aren’t far behind — but thankfully, it avoids indulging in their pain (take notes, Saul Bellow). Instead, it’s a film that explores the coping mechanisms of the couple and how each internalizes their pain. We know: This could easily meander into self-help territory, but thankfully, Kidman and Eckhart deliver blisteringly raw performances that do plenty of justice to the work of screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire. (Who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for Rabbit Hole, then a play.)
As the picture’s title suggests, the film fractures into alternate realities, namely Howie and Becca’s. Howie’s struggle is the quest for normalcy: A proponent of support groups, he outwardly seeks resolution — something that’s incongruent with Becca’s coping mechanisms. He looks at the possibility of another child, and reaches outwards towards friends for solace; this, while he less-than-secretly immerses himself in home videos of his departed son.
Becca, for her part, silently suffers — in fact, she immediately withdraws from their support group. A stay-at-home wife based in suburban New York, she surrounds herself with the mundane: She gardens, spends days on the treadmill and politely avoids intrusive, if well-intentioned, acquaintances. Unfortunately, these idyllic suburban diversions prove to be the worst possible solution: Her enforced quiet lifestyle only amplifies her pain and, consequently, she’s left imprisoned in the home meant for her now-destroyed family.
However, neither coping technique proves fruitful. Becca suggests moving out of their home, claiming that she sees her son’s “fingerprints” everywhere; Howie, naturally, balks at the notion. Howie hints at rekindling their sex life; naturally, Becca recoils at his touch, noting that it’s “too soon.” Howie resorts to getting high with a support group friend (Sandra Oh), eventually snapping under the pressure of a failing marriage. Becca — whose situation is exacerbated by her well-intentioned mother (played by the wonderfully wizened Dianne West) and her newly pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard) — finds solace in coming to terms with the teenager who killed her son (Miles Teller).
Rabbit Hole’s vivid rawness, and its sense of realism, comes with its insistence on retaining its humanity without being overtly humane. Confronting mourning head on, the film doesn’t saturate with overwrought flashbacks; rather, it’s content to explore the evolution of a relationship that’s been struck by tragedy. Its success and richness, naturally, comes with this complexity.
Not that Rabbit Hole is without humour. While decidedly straight-laced, watching Kidman viciously deconstruct limp-dick support group clichés (“God needed another angel,” one parent blubbers, as Kidman rolls her eyes) or witnessing Eckhart blubber into the fur of a likely confused family dog. Latent absurdity aside, though, this is more of a weeping wound than blunt-force trauma, a film whose slow-burn impact rattles more than its immediate intensity.