by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Rabbit Hole, a 2010 Lionsgate (the studio is now spelling it as just one word!) release of a production by Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films (the production company owned by its star, Nicole Kidman) and Oddlot Entertainment, directed by John Cameron Mitchell based on a stage play by David Lindsay-Abaire about the effect on an ordinary suburban couple, Becca (Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) Corbett, when their four-year-old son Danny (not seen as a living character in the film but shown in a flashback — a video of him on Howie’s cell phone — and played therein by Phoenix List) is run over and killed by a teenage driver, Jason (Miles Teller). Danny’s death has occurred well before the movie begins but the focus is on the effects of it, and though the overall mood of the piece is pretty somber (throughout much of it I kept thinking of my joke about Kidman’s previous film The Hours — “Wow, suicide! Cancer! AIDS! The feel-bad movie of the year!”) there are some quite nice, if rather nervous, jokes during the show.
The parents have virtually turned their house into a shrine to Danny — until one day when Becca gets tired of seeing Danny’s childhood paintings wherever she goes and rips them off the walls, boxing them and putting them in her basement because she can’t bear to throw them away. Complications ensue when Becca’s scapegrace sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) gets pregnant by her new boyfriend, a racially ambiguous musician named Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito), and at one point Becca decides to give her sister all Danny’s old clothes until Izzy says that even if her baby is a boy (at this point she doesn’t know) it would still seem weird to her for him to be walking around wearing his dead cousin’s wardrobe. Also involved is Becca’s and Izzy’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) and a grief counseling group which Becca and Howie attend until they get tired of hearing the same sad stories from the same sad people every week. Becca drops out of the group but Howie stays a bit longer and befriends another member, Gaby (Sandra Oh), whose husband breaks up with her and with whom Howie is sorely tempted to have an affair, especially after they start sitting in Gaby’s car and smoking marijuana to keep themselves sane during the dreary grief meetings — leading to the film’s most bizarre moment, in which they helplessly launch into a stoned giggle right when one of the most self-dramatizing and self-aggrandizing men in the group thunders out that of course he’s feeling rage — “My daughter died of leukemia!”
The plot thickens still further when Becca sees Jason on the school bus — at this time we don’t know who he is and we’re wondering if she’s attracted to him because she thinks he looks like what her son would have if he’d lived to be Jason’s age, but later on it turns out she’s well aware who Jason is, and she starts following the school bus that takes him home, learns where he lives, and ultimately starts meeting with him in a park and confronting him, finally letting down her own defenses, accepting his apology and building a quirky friendship with the young man. He gives her a homemade comic book he’s written and drawn, Rabbit Hole, about parallel universes (he recommends a book on the subject to her), and when she asks if one of the time-traveling characters in his fantasy is supposed to represent his father, he gets defensive and says, “No, it’s just a story.” (Like hell it’s “just a story”!)
Rabbit Hole has one weakness — throughout much of it the Kidman and Eckhart characters respond to the lingering trauma of their son’s death by becoming excessively obnoxious, and while we “get” the dramatic significance, it also makes much of the movie actively unpleasant to watch (the low point is when Becca confronts a woman in a supermarket — her son is with her, pleading to be allowed to buy a fruit wrap, and when she says no Becca butts in and says she should let the boy have it; the woman defensively says, “We don’t allow candy in our home, and he knows that,” and Becca slaps her) — but it’s not only serious in intent but a lot of it is profoundly moving, and in a story that could have become ripe from the treacly sentimentalism with which Hollywood usually does dead or dying children, director Mitchell (who responded personally to the subject matter because when he was 14, he lost his 10-year-old brother to heart disease) and writer Lindsay-Abaire deliberately play the story for raw emotion instead of tear-jerking, and resolve a virtually unresolvable plot line with a genuinely powerful ending. It’s nice to see Nicole Kidman back on form in a role like this and even nicer to see Aaron Eckhart in a film this good instead of turning in good performances in otherwise awful movies like The Black Dahlia and The Dark Knight.