Losing a child can never be an easy experience. It's the sort of event that lingers and lingers, and even when you think it's gone, it finds ways of reminding you that it's still there in your thoughts. It's also a subject that has been done to death (excuse the pun) on film. It's an excuse for big weepy moments, filled with angst-y dialogue and blubbering. Sometimes it's the main part of a film, and somethings it's just a point in the overall story, but either way, it's a story/device that is often used to wring out tears, often by shamelessly yanking at audiences' heartstrings. And differing from these traits is exactly what makes Rabbit Hole, John Cameron Mitchell's adaptation of David Lindsey-Abaire's Tony-winning play, such a success.
One of the wisest choices Abaire made (he adapted the screenplay himself) comes down to timing. Instead of dealing with the loss of a child in the immediate aftermath, the story of Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) is set 8 months after the tragedy. This gives Abaire, Mitchell, and the actors room to play their roles as more fully formed characters, as opposed to "grief stricken wife" or "grief stricken grandmother." And most surprisingly, it even allows Abaire's script the opportunity to present moments of *gasp* humor. It's these tiny moments of levity and relief that keep the film from drowning the audience in mawkish, non-stop suffering. That his writing is often quite swift only helps the scenes and story move with a certain briskness that prevents the heavy tone from weighing the movie down the whole way through. And remarkably, Mitchell, known for such outrageous films as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directs with a beautiful simplicity, working in just enough to keep to film from feeling stage-y. But of course, none of that would matter if the performances weren't up to task.
And leading the charge through it are Kidman and Eckhart as the central couple. Kidman, who's had a rough few years, finally gets a chance to show us what a three-dimensional actress she can be. She plays Becca as a woman who has been so battered by grief that it's left her as a jagged cliffside of a person. And yet, despite some of the things she says and does, the performance never goes overboard to the point where we dislike or hate her. Even early on when she calls out a grief-therapy session member for being a "god-freak," we get a sense of why this character is acting this way, even if we wouldn't have done the same thing. In both her quiet/layered scenes, and in her few "showy" ones, she sells the character, as does Eckhart, who is every bit her acting equal in this, and deserves every bit of recognition. As the more overtly sympathetic character, Eckhart never manipulates the audience into thinking that he's character is the "right one." The two of them together, both when they share scenes or when they're apart, create a beautifully compelling pair of performances that easily rank among the year's best.
Lending them support are Dianne Wiest as Becca's mother, who has endured loss of her own, Tammy Blanchard as Becca's free-spirit of a younger sister, and Miles Teller as the teenager responsible for the death of the Corbett's son. As the Corbetts interact with these and others, the story unfolds in a slightly episodic, but never clunky manner, clipping along at a generally nice speed, and bolstered by Anton Sanko's beautiful and delicate score. At moments, the script puts the actors into such awkward/tense places, that it feels as if they're performing on a high-wire, and the result is electrifying.
But what's best about it, above all, is the honesty in the script, the direction, and in the beautiful performances. The part of the film that hit me hardest - no spoilers - was one that if I were to describe it, would probably make you scratch your head. But in context of the film, it was a strange yet fitting point for the emotions that have been so deeply buried throughout the film to pour out. And best of all, when it seems like there's no way out for the characters or the audience, the film concludes on a perfect final scene that mixes in an appropriate dose of heaviness while still offering a glimmer of hope.