There’s no dramatic situation more inherently manipulative than parents dealing with the death of a child.
Simply put, it’s one of the most shattering experiences anybody can ever go through. Of course it’s going to be dramatic. Of course it’s going to test your characters. For audiences who don’t have children, it’s a shorthand. People understand that one on a surface level. And for audiences who are actually parents, it’s almost too much to bear from the very start. Once you’ve had a child, you can’t imagine your life without that person in it, and you can’t imagine sitting through a film about the subject. It’s almost too easy in terms of being the engine to drive something forward.
Yet with the new film, “Rabbit Hole” John Cameron Mitchell has crafted something sensitive, funny, powerful, and, yes, at times almost overwhelmingly emotional. He is aided in this by his incredible cast, all of whom do their very best work in this film, and of course by the script, adapted from his own award-winning play, David LIndsay-Abaire. The thing that makes the film work so well is the way it approaches grief not as a subject, but as a cause. Grief hangs over the entire film, and loss is part of it from the first frame to the last, and it’s always driving these people forward. They’re either rushing to meet it or running to prevent it, but it’s always present. What defines these characters is how they choose to handle it, and as much as Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are struggling to deal with it as a couple, as the parents of this four-year-old boy who is gone now, they ultimately have to find personal ways to handle things before they can come back together and even hope to function as a couple.
Oddly, the film is also about faith. That’s what surprised me. What you believe absolutely affects how you handle the death of a loved one, and when you don’t believe in anything, you’d better find something to believe, something that will anchor you. Maybe you call it God. Maybe you call it quantum physics. But ultimately, it’s the same thing. It’s comfort. It’s a pattern to the universe, something that makes sense of the senseless. As thinking beings, we have to understand something in order to deal with it, and when you’re confronted with something as incomprehensible as a child playing with a dog and running out in front of a car, a split-second bad decision that suddenly blows a hole in all of these lives, there’s nothing to understand.
Becca is a perfect character for Nicole Kidman to play, and she responds by giving one of the most deeply felt performances of the year. Her Becca is dangerous because grief has given her permission to drop all pretense of social grace, and she’s taking full advantage of it. When she goes to group therapy with Howie, she is horrified by the things she hears. When she talks to her mother Nat (Dianne Weist, who makes a big impression in just a few scenes), she just ends up angry. When she talks to her sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), she can’t get past all the disapproval about Izzy’s lifestyle that she feels. And it all just comes bubbling up out of her in place of the thing she’s really dealing with, which she seems to have no way to express. The film traces the journey she takes to healing herself, which ends up involving Jason (Miles Teller), the young man who was driving the car that killed her son. There are so many ways that relationship could unfold, and I think what I respond to most strongly in “Rabbit Hole” is the generosity that’s built into the film in the choices these people make. I’m so used to drama that hinges on the terrible things we do to each other that it almost feels revolutionary to see a drama with real bite that is nonetheless about people genuinely helping each other towards salvation.
Even though Becca is the lead character, the rest of the roles are equally well-defined. Eckhart is exceptional as a husband held at arm’s length, not blamed but not welcome inside Becca’s pain, desperate to find his own comfort. Where Becca takes permission to release all of her pent up problems with the people around her, Howie never lets himself take the easy out. It’s offered to him, and the film even justifies it, but he is determined to find his way back to normal somehow. Sandra Oh does great work as another member of their support group, a possible temptation for Howie, and she and Eckhart have an easy chemistry that makes the possibility seem quite credible. There’s a rapport there that fills a need, but Howie wants that with his wife, not with someone new.
Much has been written about what Kidman has or hasn’t done to her face, and I think when you’re talking about an actor, that sort of conversation is fair game. After all, it’s something that alters the most important tool an actor has. I’ll admit… I find severe plastic surgery to be quite distracting. I don’t recognize Meg Ryan anymore. And Kidman has pushed it. She’s immobilized her features to some extent, and for the first time, it actually feels appropriate. Perhaps she’s aged into the work she’s had done a bit, and perhaps that frozen immobility, that artificially placid exterior, is also somewhat fitting for a character like Becca. Whatever the case, I saw past it here, and that’s something I haven’t been able to do in some of the lesser films she’s done. Shallow? Perhaps, but this is a visual medium, and Kidman has gone through these stages in front of us, so it’s hard not to notice.
I was a huge fan of John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and I liked his follow-up, “Shortbus.” Neither of those is a film I can just casually recommend, though, because of the extremes in the subject matter. This time, I’d say Mitchell has made a film that is universal. This is about the basic things that hold us all together, and the various things that threaten to blow us apart. Mitchell’s sure, steady hand as a director is exactly what this material needs. He never oversells it, but there’s a real pulse to the material. He doesn’t make the mistake of underplaying it too much, either. It’s tricky emotional water to navigate, and Mitchell confirms with his work here that he really is a world-class filmmaker, someone whose voice we need in the mix. He’s taken a great piece of material and a great cast and he’s brought them together in one of the very best films of 2010, one that continues its rollout in theaters now.