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Rabbit Hole (2010)

Great Grief

A few years ago, I balked at people who said things like, "You'll won't understand how this feels until you become a parent." Emotions are emotions, I thought, and such passive condescension really got under my skin. This week, my son turned a year-and-a-half old, and I can say without question that my younger self didn't know what the hell he was talking about.

Case in point, John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole is a remarkable movie that I probably would have overlooked not too long ago--if I had seen it, I wouldn't have appreciated it the way I do today. This is a small film with big themes and bigger outbursts of rage, frustration, and regret. Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (adapting his own play) taps so keenly into the tenuous threads of marriage by examining the effects of child-loss that the film often feels like a heartfelt version of a Cosmopolitan quiz ("How Much Do You Really Love Your Spouse?").

Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as Becca and Howie, an affluent couple whose relationship has been strained to the breaking point, following their four-year-old son's death eight months earlier. Danny (Phoenix List) chased the family dog into the street, and was struck by a teenager named Jason (Miles Teller). Nearly a year later, Becca and Howie carry on as a busy couple masking their pain with weekly group-therapy sessions and clipped bickering.

Becca is cold with the other grieving parents (her response to another couple's claim that God took their child because he needed another angel: "Why didn't he just make one? He is God, after all."), as well as her family. Her little sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), announces that she's pregnant, and all Becca can do is scoff at what she sees as a future of sponging off their mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), who still hasn't recovered from losing the girls' brother to heroin ten years before. For the most part, Howie stays out of their affairs, offering only uncomfortable looks and the occasional arm to shuffle Becca out of tense situations. 

As you might expect, the couple seeks comfort with people outside their marriage. But Lindsay-Abaire avoids the genre's biggest traps by making Becca and Howie deeply romantic people. Despite the fact that they can't agree on anything and struggle daily with how much evidence of their son's life they should remove from the house, the love that brought them together shines through. They realize that the only way they're going to make it as people is with each other, and so they end the film as they began it--severely damaged, but together. It's one of the saddest happy endings I've seen.

Don't worry: I haven't spoiled the movie, which would imply that knowing the ending makes watching the rest irrelevant. While the closing shot is a beautiful resolution to both the story and Mitchell's visual motif (more on that in a minute), the eighty-eight minutes leading up to it are equally satisfying. Kidman and Eckhart are superb here, as are Wiest and Teller--who make their brief supporting roles indelible. Despite a jarring moment of playhouse grandiosity from Eckhart during the couple's first big fight, the actors perform very honestly. I also appreciate Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell's decision to make Becca and Howie an upper-class couple, a detail that suggests that such a great loss renders every social advantage and bit of physical comfort irrelevant.

Even if you're a kid-free film buff who doesn't care about rich people's problems, Rabbit Hole has plenty to offer. Mitchell makes great use of split composition that, once noticed, cannot be unnoticed. It's annoying at first, sure, but the degree to which he cuts almost every scene in half is fascinating, and signifies different degrees of his characters' imbalance. Consider the image above: Howie and Becca's bodies are smashed together in a cold embrace on the right-hand side of the screen. It's anti-intimacy, mirrored by actual emptiness on the left. In contrast, the perfectly balanced closing shot sees them sitting together in the back yard; Becca slowly takes Howie's hand, bringing these separate people together for the first time in the whole film.

The movie is also bizzarely similar to Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko, with its themes of suburban malaise and a distraught teenager obsessed with parallel universes. This film's title refers to a comic book that Jason began working on after the accident; his theories about alternate realities intrigues a skeptical Becca, who delivers the great line, "Somewhere out there, I'm having a good time."

It's hard to say how much of Rabbit Hole's effectiveness is due to my own feelings as a dad versus Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire's deftness as manipulators. I guess I'm either a dupe or a softy because I balled my eyes out twice during the film. The emotions were deep, real, and strangely new. 

Note: Allow me a moment to be petty. It took me about fifteen minutes to really get into Rabbit Hole because of Nicole Kidman's weird, plastic face. I don't know when she went under the knife, but this once stunning actress has been partially disfigured from the lips down. There are some scenes where it doesn't look as bad, but the freakish sculpting does a slight disservice to the story. Howie doesn't seem like the kind of vain asshole who would demand that his wife keep up appearances to that degree. So we're left with watching Nicole Kidman playing a role--rather than watching a grieving mother whom we can't believe is played by Nicole Kidman.

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