Five stages of grief, and five thousand movies about them. For every Ordinary People or In the Bedroom, there are dime-a-dozen duds like last year’s The Greatest and Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones. But Rabbit Hole may be the most therapeutic of them all, in its focus on learning to put one foot in front of another again. But it’s not just medicinal: it’s great drama.
Certified with the Pulitzer Prize, David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2005 play won a Tony Award for Cynthia Nixon. Now Rabbit Hole—as adapted by Lindsay-Abaire and directed by John Cameron Mitchell—gets the big-screen treatment, with Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in the leads. Becca and Howie Corbett are, of course, not as functional as they first appear. In their well-appointed, plentiful suburban home, the pair seem just a half-step off in their pre-dinner banter, and perhaps their surroundings are a shade too dark and a bit too quiet.
Eight months earlier, Becca and Howie’s four-year-old son Danny chased his dog into the street, and suburban bliss turned to a seemingly unyielding emotional claustrophobia. The odds are against the Corbetts pushing past their mutual resentment and salvaging their marriage; though they have thus far endured, the halt on their sex life is a bad sign, and tensions have begun to win out over tolerance. Their distinctly different grieving processes have yet to mesh: Howie finds day-to-day comfort in seeking understanding at a support group and holding on to his memories (Becca implies he may be heading for a life as a “professional wallower”), while the perpetually touchy Becca rejects painful keepsakes and those who claim to know what she’s feeling. Howie puts it succinctly: “Something’s gotta change.”
Becca has become socially impossible, not least around her newly pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard) and their too-helpful mother (Dianne Wiest), more similar to Becca than either would care to admit. Defiantly on her own, Becca tentatively wanders avenues of potential comfort, revisiting her former workplace (could vocation be the answer?) and following—and eventually engaging—a teenage boy (Miles Teller) who has become the object of her fascination. In stark contrast to her husband’s comfort in signs of their old life, Becca has banished the family dog that played a role in her son’s death and suggests selling their house full of memories. Howie counters with the implicitly scary prospect of having another child, but Becca’s not there yet, and perhaps never will be.
Only one thing is certain to Becca: God is not her answer. Her spiritual faith having been permanently dashed by her misfortune, she’s prone to lashing out at those who find comfort in religion. An intriguing alternative comes from the teenager, who’s reading, as “research,” Fred Alan Wolf’s book Parallel Universes: The Search for Other Worlds and writing his own science-fiction comic book. “Space is infinite, and everything’s possible,” he offers. “Assuming you believe in science.” Perhaps faith in science might be the comfort Becca so sorely needs.
The film’s impeccable emotional truth and delicate touches of black humor owe in equal part to screenwriter, director and stars. All frayed edges, Kidman turns in one of her finest performances, and Eckhart goes toe-to-toe with her in more than one powerful duet. As Becca’s mother—who herself lost a son—Dianne Wiest is quietly devastating, especially when mother and daughter finally talk straight about their grief. Though the death of a child and potentially a marriage are unspeakably horrible, Rabbit Hole turns out to be improbably hopeful. After all, even Alice made her way back across the thresholds of the rabbit hole and the looking glass.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]