(2010)3.5Perry SeibertWith the gender-bending Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the sexually upfront Shortbus, director John Cameron Mitchell proved he was thrillingly unafraid of being explicit. But his third feature, an adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's play Rabbit Hole, finds him embracing subtlety without sacrificing his taste for the melodramatic.
The movie stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie, a couple grieving the death of their young son months after a traffic accident took his life. They are each floundering in their own way -- Becca has mostly cut herself off from people, while Howie ends most days watching videos of their son on his phone. Attending a group therapy session with fellow grieving parents does nothing for Becca, but Howie strikes up a friendship there with Gaby (Sandra Oh) that quickly escalates into an emotional bond. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Howie, Becca has been having conversations with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenage boy who played an unwitting role in her child's death.
The dramatic tension in Rabbit Hole -- the title comes from a comic book created by Jason -- stems from the question of whether a marriage can survive such a devastating emotional trauma. And while the film never shies away from Becca and Howie's pain, it doesn't wallow in it either. Kidman and Eckhart are excellent together -- their characters' deep love for each other hasn't disappeared, it's just buried under layers of sadness, hate, and anger that bubble to the surface even as they try to tamp them down. Kidman's icy demeanor makes her early scenes all the more powerful -- Becca's refusal of a neighbor's kindly invitation to a party is socially acceptable, yet unmistakably pointed. Contrast that with the tender exchanges between Becca and Jason, and you can begin to appreciate the range Kidman is capable of. Eckhart and Oh get the film's best laughs, especially in a scene when, after smoking pot, they attend another group counseling session.
The movie feels intimate rather than explosive; the emotional stakes don't seem trumped up, but instead seem intimately personal. That's a savvy creative choice by Mitchell and his cast because with material like this it's tempting to manipulate the audience into sympathetic tears. There are big moments, to be sure, but they are just moments -- the kind of sudden outbursts that will be very familiar to anyone who's lived through the senseless loss of a loved one. Rabbit Hole is a simple film, written, acted, and directed with empathy.