Friday, January 7, 2011

Rabbit Hole Movie Review: The Reverberations of Unbearable Loss

When a neighbor greets Becca (Nicole Kidman) in her garden and invites her to dinner, there’s something noticeably strained in the conversation. Likewise when her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), arrives home from work, there is something not altogether right in their interactions. When Becca learns, after bailing her out of jail for a barfight, that her little sister is pregnant, she is uncomfortably happy. When she asks Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) why she told their mother first, she responds, “Why do you think?” Something seems dreadfully wrong in the opening moments of Rabbit Hole, so wrong that the crisp and clean suburban Long Island surfaces can’t cover it up, no matter how hard everyone seems to be trying. Becca and Howie are grieving over the death of their four year old son, killed eight months earlier chasing their dog into the road.

A character drama about how people deal with grief seems a long way from the subject matter that has attracted director John Cameron Mitchell in the past. His other two films, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, are about a glam rocker with a botched sex change operation and the many joys of sex of several New Yorkers. Apparently personal history led him to the screen version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s (who also wrote the screenplay) Pulitzer Prize-winning play.

 This isn’t the first cinematic treatment of the suffering over losing a child, but I can’t think of another – and this is a testament to the wonderful writing of Lindsay-Abaire – that treats grief as an emotion experienced by everyone around the parents instead of as a series of actions and reactions. Becca and Howie are obviously the individuals most deeply affected by the loss, but where Rabbit Hole strays from the convention is in the way it handles all those around them and their own responses to the terrible pain felt by a couple who have to constantly find ways of adapting to terrible circumstances.

How do we confront grieving parents? This is one of the fundamental questions that Lindsay-Abaire poses. There are those, like Becca’s mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), and Izzy, who try to treat them as normal until she tries to offer some of her son’s old clothes as a gift for the forthcoming baby. Izzy isn’t comfortable with the idea of seeing her own child in the clothes of her dead nephew. There are those like the neighbor, who make empty offers of kindness for lack of anything better to do or say. And there are the friends like Debbie (only spoken of, never seen) who cut off contact probably because of a feeling of complete inadequacy in such a trying time.

Then there is the struggle within the marriage. Howie and Becca attend group session with other parents who’ve lost children. Gaby (Sandra Oh) reveals that she and her husband have been part of the group for eight years. Howie and Becca seem stunned that the grief could last so long. It’s quite common for couples to split up after the loss of a child. “It literally changes people,” Gaby says after her husband leaves her. Howie and Becca quite obviously love each other very much, but they have very different ways of handling the grieving process. She is quicker to get rid of clothes, toys, pictures, and to look into selling the house. He watches videos on his phone again and again, but puts on a veneer of normalcy when he goes out of the house to work every day. He seems well-adjusted, but is anything but. How could he be?

If Gaby serves as a wake-up call that the pain will not soon stop, then Nat is the evidence that it doesn’t matter how old a child is when he dies nor what killed him. She has a habit of making comparisons between her daughter’s grief and her own over the loss of her son many years ago. Becca finds the comparisons repellant as her brother was a 30 year old heroin addict. She fails to see any similarity between him and an innocent child who was struck by a car. But it’s Becca’s failure of vision that leads to a bitter exchange with Nat because the similarity is not in the victims, but in the fact that the loss of a child is equally destructive no matter the circumstances.

The brilliance of a screenplay comes in many forms. It can come in the shape of a distinctive voice a la Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet. It can be from great story structure like Paul Thomas Anderson. It can simply be great dialogue. Lindsay-Abaire’s writing certainly has the last two while allowing for the most natural follow-up resolutions to earlier conflicts and arguments. The realism of the writing grounds the film, an essential quality for this subject matter. Also, with the unfortunate glaring exception of one brief scene in a supermarket, there is not a single moment that rings false.

Kidman has been getting all the recognition for her performance. She’s got Golden Globe and SAG nominations and may be headed for an Oscar nod, but – and not to detract at all from her devastating, but controlled, brilliance – for me Eckhart steals the show. He is staggeringly good and at the emotional climax, a blow out of startling power between Howie and Becca, he makes Kidman look like an amateur.

Still I’ve not even touched on one of the key aspects of the story and the source of the title. Becca, who seems incapable of finding comfort with anyone – not her husband, mother, sister, counseling group, or God – starts meeting Jason (Miles Teller), the 17-year old kid who was driving the car that killed the boy. Rabbit Hole is the title of a comic book he’s been working on which riffs on the philosophy that if the universe is infinite then everyone must have a parallel life somewhere. You’ve got to like a movie about grief that doesn’t fail to recognize that the one responsible for the accidental death of a child also suffers. Becca and Jason are able to offer each other the support and comfort that she (and presumably he) can’t find elsewhere.

The final scenes reveal a shred of hope for Howie and Becca, showing how they may begin to cope and move through their lives without destroying themselves and each other. There can obviously be no happy ending, but maybe they can find a way to at least live again.

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