Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, respectively) are an upper-middle-class couple still raw after the death of their infant son eight months prior. With their son’s room intact and remnants of him throughout the house, the couple walks around as if merely bumping into each other will cause them to shatter. Their emotional state is that volatile and that fragile. Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, the film manages to escape the trappings of a stage play while still giving us the impression of the couple being constrained by their emotional paralysis.
A neighbor visits Becca while she is gardening to invite her and Howie over for dinner. She accidentally steps on a newly planted flower, crushing it, and in doing so brings metaphorical clarity to Becca of a young bud being snuffed out before it has time to bloom. With this grave insult her invitation is swiftly and coldly rebuffed. A visit to a grief counseling group sees Becca squirming as she hears stories of other couples’ losses, and instead of lending an empathetic ear, she lashes out at them in a scene that is uncomfortable yet humorous.
Becca’s cruelty also extends to her mother Nat (a wonderful Dianne Wiest), still mourning the death of her own son and comparing it to Becca’s loss. Her intention is honorable and compassionate but Becca sees it as a vicious and unfair comparison (her brother died of a drug overdose at age 30) and shoots verbal daggers at her. She also looks down on her younger sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) who, when not having to be bailed out of jail for bar fights, is getting pregnant by her musician boyfriend. Becca’s feeling of Izzy’s undeserved motherhood, especially in the light of hers being robbed, is given prime real estate in their conversations.
Howie is constantly trying to move forward with Becca without losing the past. His attempts at intimacy or the mention of having another child are met with frustration and anger. Becca’s sudden decision to remove their son’s toys and refrigerator art is seen as an act of violence by Howie. As the couple grows increasingly apart and unable to talk to each other, they both find people outside of their marriage for comfort, Howie in pot-smoking Gaby (Sandra Oh) from group therapy and Becca with a mysterious boy (a brilliant debut from newcomer Miles Teller) she follows, almost obsessively. The nature of this relationship is kept back from the viewer (although it isn’t terribly difficult to figure out) and is a great example of the restraint and assurance Mitchell shows as a director here.
Eckhart does very good work, running the gamut from subtle to (sometimes a bit too) explosive. Wiest is gentle here, offering sage advice in the face of her daughter’s nastiness. I was reminded of her character in Edward Scissorhands, a bit hopeful, a bit naïve but always with good intentions. The film really belongs to Kidman though, as she is so fearless in this role. She is icy and steely but appropriately so, as she hasn’t figured out how to manage her grief. We almost always manage to be on her side even at her most vicious, giving her the empathy that she sometimes can’t muster. It’s her best performance since Birth and worthy of Oscar consideration. My only reservation, and I know this will cause groans and rolled eyes, is that sometimes her face appears overworked and it belies her suburban housewife role. It’s a relatively small distraction though.
An incredibly subdued piece in comparison to his two previous films, Rabbit Hole is more Ordinary People than Antichrist in the pantheon of couples with children lost, a confident mainstream effort proving Mitchell is not just a fringe director. It’s not a great film, but a very good one, showing that Mitchell doesn’t need the bells and whistles of musical numbers or graphic sex (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but has the strength to work with conventional material and still put his stamp on it.