‘Rabbit Hole’: Down and up

December 13, 2010

Nicole Kidman is a solid actress with, too frequently, unfortunate taste in scripts and projects. But she reestablishes herself as a force to contend with in “Rabbit Hole,” a touching film version of the Pultizer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire.


Simple in its outline, “Rabbit Hole” deals with intense and devastating emotions and the complex reactions different partners in a marriage have to them. Ostensibly a drama about the aftermath of a tragedy, “Rabbit Hole” is also about healing and forgiving, about resuming a life that seems to have lost its reason for being.


Kidman plays Becca, married to Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and residents of what looks like a toney New York suburb. (The film was shot in Queens, though the play originally was set in Larchmont.) Their lives seem oddly constricted until we learn what’s eating at them: Eight months earlier, their 4-year-old son ran out into the street chasing the family dog and was killed by a car.


So they attend a grief-support group, though Becca finds some members’ discussion of “God’s plan” off-putting. Howie, however, takes comfort in the gatherings – and finds himself drawn to Gaby (Sandra Oh), a long-time member, after Becca stops attending.


Becca and Howie seem at odds in their ability to move on with their lives. For Becca, everything seems to be a reminder of her loss, whether it’s her younger, more irresponsible sister (Tammy Blanchard) and her unplanned pregnancy with a boyfriend who lives with another woman or just a mother speaking harshly to a child in the supermarket. Howie, by contrast, takes solace in watching video of their dead son on his iPhone and is angered when Becca starts taking down their son’s paintings from the refrigerator or talks about selling their house.


Lindsay-Abaire never hammers the material; he doesn’t even needle the characters. Rather, he lets natural moments take wing, even when the story takes an odd turn and Becca spots the teen-age boy whose car killed her son. She finds herself drawn to him, with almost a maternal interest. Does she see him as the young man her son might have been, will never be?


In the end, “Rabbit Hole” is about the ultimate test a marriage can face: not infidelity, though there are hints of that, but the loss of a child. Even the strongest couple would question its own resilience, each individual’s sense of responsibility for the loss and their willingness to forgive (even when no one is at fault) each other and themselves. Lindsay-Abaire deftly captures the sense of mourning that can suddenly rise up like a tidal wave and momentarily drown the sufferer.


Yet “Rabbit Hole” is not a downer or a depressing film. To the contrary – director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) shows a firm but gentle touch with this material. He’s keenly attuned to the shades of sorrow, but also to the possibility of humor, of laughter, forgiveness and resolution.


Kidman captures the tightly wound quality of Becca, a woman who is holding it together for – who? Herself? Her husband? She seems perpetually on the verge of a serious breakdown yet just as perpetually able to turn a page on those feelings, to set them aside in order to carry on. Eckhart is equally good, capturing the male imperative to tamp down those feelings, while still choking on them. Dianne Wiest balances ditziness with feeling and insensitivity as Becca’s upbeat mother, who worries about Becca’s condition but, seemingly, only as it affects her.


“Rabbit Hole” sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise in both the levels of tragedy it reaches and the way it is able to show you that life does go on. It is never the same, to be sure, but it does go on in ways that takes these characters to unexpected places.


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