John Cameron Mitchell’s moving Rabbit Hole opens on an idyllic backyard, a vibrant garden of carefully pruned flowers surrounded by a pristine white picket fence. Becca (Nicole Kidman) calmly tends to her beloved plants, safely rooted within the perimeter; comfortably, blissfully in control.
But inside her meticulously kept home is only misery, and the painful reminders of her 4-year-old son who chased the family dog through the fence, and outside her control, into the street and was struck by an oncoming car. She shares the home and the devastation with her loving husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart), but eight months of intense mourning has driven a distance between them.
Kidman delivers a career performance as the restrained mother who rarely betrays her internal turmoil, except to lash out in frustration like an inappropriate outburst at a group therapy session she reluctantly attends with Howie. Otherwise, Kidman (and by extension, Becca) concedes only nuanced emotions, typically stubborn passive-aggression when rejecting words of comfort from her mother (a solid Dianne Wiest), sympathies from her sister (Tammy Blanchard) whose unexpected pregnancy is regarded as a painful affront, and the hesitant affections of her husband.
Ironically, Becca finds solace in quiet, secretive talks with Jason (impressive newcomer Miles Teller), the awkward 17-year-old boy responsible for her son’s death, who shares his cathartic comic book project about alternate realities, or escapes.
While Eckhart is superb as the bereaved father still desperately clinging to the inanimate remnants of his son’s life and hoping for some semblance of normalcy. This leads to respite, carefree rendezvous and complicated flirtations with Gaby (Sandra Oh), a similarly grieving member of the support group.
Director John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous two features include the extravagant Shortbus, shows his own considerable restraint with this deeper, darker material. He approaches the characters and their fluctuating emotions with a calm sensitivity, gliding through the tonal shifts and stages of grief with ease and transitioning flawlessly from gallows humor to a series of intimate exchanges.
The story, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, stretches and adjusts into its suburban atmosphere as the film takes advantage of its liberating medium, refreshingly abandoning a cinematic (re)presentation of the play’s few suffocating locations. But the stage mentality is still present as Mitchell frames a scene and encourages his actors to act and react honestly within the space without later resorting to artificial crutches like manipulative edits and swelling musical cues.
Rabbit Hole is a lived-in domestic drama, wholly based on its authentic performances, that mercifully doesn’t wallow in overly melodramatic sobfests or descend into sappy monologues. Eckhart and especially Kidman draw you into that devastating, often exhausting world to experience the couple’s enduring struggle, rather than watch numbly as two souls cope with a loss, and the exposure to their limbo leaves a lasting impression.
4.5 out of 5.