From the start, Rabbit Hole seems to be looking up at the world from a position of frustration and regret. Suburbia is a place of artificial security, away from the harsh urban reality; an unsettling dreamscape we pretend does not share a border with the nightmares that we seek to avoid.
Due to an unbearable loss, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) have gone underground. Their 4-year-old son slipped through the front gate, in pursuit of the family dog, wandered into traffic and was killed by a passing car. The resulting grief forced them to retreat from life and each other; it sent them scurrying into separate holes, burrowing further apart every day.
The first instinct of the core community of family and friends is to hold them, to keep them from slipping deep into themselves. That is what we assume to be the normal response.
So the neighbors tiptoe into the yard with invitations to break bread, but the new rabbit holes lay among old land mines and hidden tunnels of despair. Becca’s dramatically empathic mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) seeks to commiserate, sharing her own loss of an adult son to drug addiction, while Becca’s wild-child sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) looks forward to the birth of her own child, fathered by Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito), an older musician with few prospects.
On her own, Becca goes through the motions of seeking past signs of her life before the accident, her work life before the parenting, home life before the dog (and the guilt she and the dog bear), anything before that fateful day.
Nearing the bottom of the abyss, she encounters Jason (Miles Teller), the young high school student who hit her son, and he tentatively introduces her to his own efforts (a comic-book project about parallel and alternative universes) to accept responsibility for what happened and to move on with the rest of his life.
Howie, seeking solace and a means of moving forward, establishes a bond with Gaby (Sandra Oh), another emotionally arrested parent dealing with the loss of a child. Gaby has been attending survivors meetings for eight years and has watched as her husband has drifted away from the group and her. Becca has already left Howie alone and vulnerable to a need for connection with someone, anyone who might understand. The meetings serve to remind audiences of the addictive nature of grief, how it feeds on itself and creates toxic bonds to people, places and things.
In Shortbus, director John Cameron Mitchell set his sights on the sexual urges that people keep hidden, the feelings and pursuit of sensations buried in order to claim an acceptable degree of normalcy. The raw sexual nature of the images blinded audiences to the hurt and struggle of the characters, the thwarted desires and the inability to see and know themselves as anything other than compromised freaks. In the end, Shortbus was about embracing those differences and redefining normal.
Rabbit Hole does for grief and loss what Shortbus did for sex and the sense of identity we mold from our sexual orientations. We grieve in different ways, and others begin to see and define us by our expressions of that hurt. It changes us — our immersion in loss and/or how we handle our proximity to it and those that we love who are caught in its unshakeable grasp.
Adapting his own play, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Inkheart, Robots) provides Mitchell with all of the emotional space he needs capture Becca and Howie, Izzy and Nat and Jason as they dig and claw back to some semblance of life. Usually in translating plays to the screen, there is the concern about opening up the largely static world of the stage, figuring out how to accommodate the extra dimensions of the greater world available. And while that is certainly a factor here, it is the psychological landscape that expands. Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell take full advantage of the continental shifts that end up stranding the characters emotionally.
Yet, for all that Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell accomplish here, the whole affair balances on the shoulders of Kidman who, much like Jesse Eisenberg in his uber-geek portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, has found the perfect role for her icy reserve and she shows us how Becca is able to lead everyone on this journey back from the land of the dead. Grade: A
Opens Jan. 14. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.