Grief is a river that flows everywhere at once. As tremendously kind and empathetic as it proves to be, the basic premise of “Rabbit Hole” may be off-putting. So let’s describe it initially in these terms: a husband and wife must come to grips with the possible dissolution of their marriage, due to circumstances beyond their control.
Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are walking on eggshells. Becca appears so fragile that she’ll break into a million pieces from the merest glance cast in her direction. We see that in the tentative manner that her next-door neighbor approaches her; it’s a quiet morning, and Becca is tending to her garden. The neighbor invites her to a little get-together, speaking softly, in calm, measured tones, as though Becca were an injured animal that might run away at the slightest misspoken word. Becca politely declines the invitation, citing a prior engagement, but she, too, speaks with restraint.
Once inside her house, Becca’s emotions ooze out, as though the very idea of a social occasion disturbed and repelled her. Howie, dressed for work in a business suit, is immediately on guard to protect and support her; listening carefully to everything she says, without judgment. He seems sturdier, at least from the outside, yet also tender and kind, the “strong one,” we might think. But it’s a thin veneer.
The opening scenes reveal that Howie and Becca live a materially comfortable existence in a lovely, though not ostentatious, two-story home in Long Island, New York, overlooking the sound. Every morning, Howie heads off to an office in Manhattan, where he does work that is never specified. He’s clearly very good at what he does, because he earns enough to support the two of them. Becca spends her days exercising, gardening, and occasionally visiting with her younger sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) and mother Nat (Dianne Wiest).
Once a week Howie and Becca attend a support session. And every day they try to recover from a tragic event in the recent past that still threatens to tear apart the delicate fabric of their relationship.
This is the point of the review where it’s impossible to write further about the film without revealing the nature of the tragedy, which you might have already guessed: Howie and Becca’s 4-year-old son Danny died after being struck by an automobile, on the street in front of their lovely, though not ostentatious, home.
It’s a peculiar, unsettling notion, but “dead kid” movies (no disrespect intended) have become a sub-genre unto themselves. As much as is humanly and humanely possible, “Rabbit Hole” does not follow the expected path.
Certainly the film, adapted and seamlessly opened up by David Lindsay-Abaire from his play, follows the widely-accepted “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but Howie and Becca are not automatons or character “types,” they are real people, and they act in ways that are sometimes confounding or exasperating.
Becca, for example, finds the support group they attend to be totally useless, with too much “God talk,” while Howie feels that the groups has been helpful to him, especially the kind words offered by Gaby (Sandra Oh), whose child died years before. Becca also resents the well-intentioned encouragement of her mother, who endeavors to sympathize by recounting her own experience as a mother in dealing with the suicide of Becca’s brother. It doesn’t help that Izzy, “the irresponsible one,” is pregnant, while Becca is still grieving over the loss of her child.
Trying to clear her head — or pass the time — Becca drives aimlessly, and one day sees a teenage boy. She begins following the young man, named Jason (Miles Teller), for reasons that are not immediately apparent. They meet up, and his relationship to Becca and Howie becomes clear, and it’s all rather heart-breaking.
The performances are exquisite. Kidman leads the way, but Eckhart and Wiest are equally fine. John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Shortbus”) directed with a keen eye. David Lindsay-Abaire added characters and locations that were only mentioned or alluded to in his stage play, which was set entirely within Howie and Becca’s home; it all fits together and feels organic to the piece.
“Rabbit Hole” is not easy to watch, and may not hit home for all viewers in the same way, but the acting and the writing are so extraordinary that the film demands attention.
“Rabbit Hole” opens today at Angelika Dallas and Angelika Plano.