Rabbit Hole (2010)

09 February 2011

John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole has going against it several problems: adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, the script, with its focus in every scene on a married couple grieving the loss of their young son, is the stuff of soap opera; not only this, but even for a film of this kind, not very much happens, or at least, everything that does happen is 'internal'; perhaps even more fundamental than either of these, though, is the subject matter itself - as a film about something as uniquely traumatic as child loss, it's either your thing or it isn't. Indeed, as the underwhelming trailers for the film showed, there's very little the makers could do here to entice people into the film.

It's so much more surprising, then, that the film is a solid, watchable account of the complex variety of emotions with which people can respond to the death of a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost their son Danny in a road accident 8 months ago; we see early on that each is dealing with it in their own way. Howie is keen on attending group therapy sessions, on retaining items in the home that relate directly to Danny, on keeping the house; Becca is in turn dubious on all counts.

Certain plot contrivances inevitably invoke melodrama: Becca's own mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), lost her son (Becca's brother) eleven years previously to a drug addiction; along with this, very early in the film, Becca learns that her sister is pregnant. It is testament to Nicole Kidman's performance that these issues, scripted quite crudely, gain a certain weight in the overall texture of the film. Something which isn't compensated for, though, is the rather obvious way in which Becca's pursuit of solace and understanding in young Jason (Miles Teller), the schoolboy who accidentally knocked her son over, is mechnically cross-cut against Howie's would-be commitment to a sexual affair with fellow group therapy regular Gaby (Sandra Oh), with whom he has been skipping sessions in order to get high.

This is the emotional climax of the film, and doesn't quite go far enough, or at least is content not to go any further, unlike Paprika Steen's very similar Aftermath (2004). Howie, at the last minute, has second thoughts and leaves Gaby waiting (and waiting she was, as alluring as she was selfish); Becca, meanwhile, having earlier in the film openly attacked the irrationality of accounting for the death of a child by the "God works in mysterious ways" formula, is comforted when Jason tells her that according to the laws of eternity, there is a parallel universe out there where both of them are happy... "if you believe in science".

That last point is less utopian than an acknowledgement of Becca's chosen cushioning device, subtly recalling her earlier indignation; if it is less openly unreasonable than the group therapy arguments that posit "God needed an angel so he took our child", the notion that Becca's life is unfolding more to plan in an alternate reality is no less helpful to her than the other argument would be to believers. As such, the film calls into question the ways with which we defer trauma, not only in the belief system we decide upon in order to cope with it, but in the more material daily habits such as whether or not to keep attached to the fridge a picture the child once drew.

There are no easy answers, of course, and the film doesn't provide them; but it's a sensitive, understanding work held together by a brilliant cast and two standout performances from Kidman and Eckhart.