Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole (2010)
Dramas about grief aren't especially new to the cinema, especially those about the loss of a child. Think of Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980), The Accidental Tourist (Lawrence Kasdan, 1988) and The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997) for starters. But none that I can recall deal with the loss of a child quite so intimately and personally as Rabbit Hole. I was worried going into the film, not just because of the peculiarly allegorical title and Mitchell's film history, but because these are movies that can so easily fall into mawkish sentiment, preaching or patronizing soft-peddling. With a 12A rating in the UK there was no telling how it would work out. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a mature, smartly scripted and profoundly emotional meditation on loss and the dynamics of a marriage put under strain. The script is honest and occasionally shocking, layered with depth of character - but most deserving of praise are the central performances by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart.
There was a rather prickly review by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle which slammed Kidman's performance for her looks. I quote: (in reference to her character Becca) "She is a very particular type of no-nonsense, real person, and it's distracting to find oneself wondering why such a woman would have had lip injections and a forehead that looks like porcelain." Now I'll admit that after the trailer I had some concerns too, as it's clear that Kidman has had some work done - which Becca simply couldn't afford, and would less likely even want given the normality of her existence (which is meant as a compliment). But I've always liked Kidman as an actress - she takes on consistently challenging roles in a great variety of films. Think of her work in Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) and Dogville (Lars von Trier, 2003) for example. And it's a testament to the talent I always knew she had that her performance here has depth beyond the shallow nature of image. I was completely invested in Becca as a real woman suffering a great loss and her performance has been richly awarded with an Oscar nomination. But then that begs the question: where's Aaron Eckhart's nomination? Because without him Kidman's character just doesn't work. They're a family - a unit of grief trying to survive; two sides of the same coin. It's a believable relationship because the two actors are both totally invested in every moment. It seems absurd to nominate one and not the other. For my money it's his best work and it was his portrayal of Howie that actually made me misty eyed a few times. It's a raw and intense performance that never showboats, and it's criminal that he's not nominated.
Elsewhere the script by David Lindsay-Abaire (adapted from his own stage play) shines. One scene sees Becca arguing with her mother Nat (a superb Dianne Wiest) about the place of religion in healing. Nat asks her daughter (and I'm paraphrasing) "What if you're wrong? What if there is a God? What would you say then?" Coldly and bluntly she replies "I'd say he's a sadistic prick." It hit me like a knife to the gut - I can't think of another film so forward about disbelief in God, especially considering how many of these movies cheaply resort to faith as a mere plot device. In fact it recalls for me that famous moment in Bigger Than Life (Nicholas Ray, 1956) where Ed Avery (James Mason) loudly declares "God was wrong", which was a hugely controversial scene in its time. There's some more beautiful dialogue, especially in the final scene between Becca and Jason (Miles Teller), the young boy who accidentally killed her four-year-old son. Together they discuss parallel universes and a comic book he has designed, called Rabbit Hole (this likely holds all sorts of allegory, but it matters little) and Becca confronts the idea of there being multiple versions of herself in different universes, living different lives. "We're just the sad version" she says, coming to terms with her lonely life. "Somewhere out there I'm having a good time." It is a lovely thought, and without ever condemning the notion or saying those who believe are wrong, provides a refreshing alternative to religion. There's a lot of unexpected bite to Rabbit Hole, and that made its impact all the more powerful. Beautifully shot and scored, the film is ultimately a deeply moving triumph. It doesn't provide any answers; to even try would be pretentious. But the questions are important, and realised with heart. I can't recommend it enough.