See This or Die: ‘Rabbit Hole’

Our weekly feature in which a writer answers the question: if you could force your friends at gunpoint to watch one movie or TV show, what would it be?

There is a scene about midway through “Rabbit Hole” that gets grieving exactly right. It takes place between Becca Corbett (Nicole Kidman) and her mother Nat (Dianne Wiest), both of whom have tragically lost their sons: Nat to the horrors of drug addiction eleven years before and Becca to a car in the street eight months ago. As they are placing boxes of four-year-old Danny's things in the basement of the home Becca shares with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart), Nat sums up her feelings on loss with an elegant metaphor.

Becca: Does it ever go away?

Nat: No, I don't think it does. Not for me, it hasn't, and it's going on eleven years. It changes though.

Becca: How?

Nat: I don't know…the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and there it is. Oh right, that. Which can be awful. But not all the time. It's kinda…not that you like it, exactly, but it's what you've got instead of your son. So, you carry it around. And uh…it doesn't go away. Which is…

Becca: Which is what?

Nat: Fine, actually.

I can't stress enough how beautifully written this is, and how beautifully delivered by Wiest, who gives another Oscar-worthy performance as a woman who perhaps isn't wise about a lot of things but who knows grief as intimately as the back of her own hand. It's the quiet centerpiece of a film that is as wise as it is heartrending.

“Rabbit Hole” was adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and he and director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” “Shortbus”) do a terrific job of opening it up for the big screen, with scenes only referenced in dialogue on stage powerfully dramatized on film, including a scene that takes place during a support group meeting for grieving parents in which Becca asks another mother who says her son died “because God needed another angel”: “Why didn't he just make one?” The way Kidman delivers the line doesn't feel entirely rhetorical; the flash of pain that registers in her eyes suggests that she really, truly, wants to know the answer even as she understands and is angered by the utter futility of the question.

Also fleshed out in the film version are Howie's relationship with Gabby (Sandra Oh), a woman in their support group, and Becca's developing friendship with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage driver of the car that hit Danny when he chased the family dog into the street. The latter scenes in particular work exceptionally well; Kidman here is terrifically matched with Teller, whose sensitive, intuitive portrayal of a young man whose life has been forever altered by a tragic accident marked him as one of the most promising young actors of his generation (a promise that's been borne out in films ranging from 2012's “The Spectacular Now” to last year's Oscar-winning “Whiplash”). The tentative friendship the two develop over a small handful of scenes is intimately rendered and benefits greatly from the actors' chemistry, as in the below scene where the two discuss parallel universes (an idea Jason has incorporated into a comic book he's writing):

There is a lot of truth in the scenes between Becca and Howie, but I think “Rabbit Hole” gathers much of its thematic power from their scenes apart, and the resulting suggestion that real healing often takes place separate from those closest to you. It's only when the two embark on divergent paths — Howie in “group” (and his budding would-be romance with Gabby) and Becca in her talks with Jason — that they can truly come to terms with the overwhelming loss they have experienced. Like Robert Redford's “Ordinary People,” the film is perceptive in its depiction of grief, and how incredibly divergent our responses to it can be.

No discussion of “Rabbit Hole” would be complete without special mention of Anton Sanko's incredible score, which sidesteps the overwrought flourishes that so often accompany Hollywood melodramas and in the process neatly echoes the spare power of Mitchell's direction, which (save for one screaming match between the grieving couple) never overplays the emotion of its premise.

In the end, Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire don't offer any pat answers and, indeed, there are none to be gleaned. But the film ends on a quietly hopeful note that suggests that in the face of unimaginable loss, sometimes the best — albeit the hardest — thing you can do is to keep moving.