Rabbit Hole, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, follows Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) as they struggle to maintain a shred of normalcy eight months after the death of their 4-year-old son, Danny. The overall arch of the film examines how we define grief and the difficulty of going on. There is a sense of loneliness and separation as we watch Becca and Howie go through their blocks of time trying to make sense of their lives without their son. There are moments of temptation, helplessness, barely controlled rage, and periods of grief that become cathartic as we watch their private moments unfold. Distraction is offered in the form of other people. Becca must deal with her sister, Izzie’s (Tammy Blanchard) pregnancy. An underused Giancarlo Esposito offers slight comic relief as Izzie’s musician boyfriend, Auggie, while Gabby (Sandra Oh) is a wife and bereaved mother who has been going to group counseling sessions for eight years. She offers Howie the taste of life without the wearisome load he is faced with at home.
Then there are the sections of art as a form of distraction for the audience. We watch the artist’s hand trace the trails of the rabbit hole. The mystery of it draws us in and becomes a way of connecting us to the artist’s interiority by stealthily asking the question: who am I and what is my muse? Or perhaps the question goes beyond the muse and tries to challenge us with the ease of how people try to find meaning in everything they see. Maybe the answers they find are not the right ones but only the conclusions they want.
The film also tries to answer the question of blame, leaving to us wonder if pointing the finger is the answer to relief. Blame becomes something black and white in a situation where everyone involved is filled with emotions trembling just beneath the surface of a saving face.
We watch Becca, calm and with a steady hand, gather her son’s clothes, wash them, and wait by the machine for them to dry. She is a solitary figure standing in her basement holding the basket to her chest. Here Mitchell shows us that there is grief even in the most mundane moments of the day.
This film is filled with poignant scenes and the actors, whether alone or playing off each other, carry themselves with stoicism and a painful awareness of the absent child. The score, composed by Anton Sanko, is elegant and unassuming. It becomes a character in this movie about the intimacy that is found between husband and wife, mother and daughter, sisters and strangers.
But the film shines in how the story is told. Written by David Lindsay Abaire and also based on his play “Rabbit Hole”, it is clear that he has effortlessly transitioned this story from stage to screenplay. We are never given the details all at once. The pieces are filled in scene by scene, and we discover where comfort can be found for two people who are trying to maintain their relationship and a firm grasp on their reality.
One such scene that stands out is the glimpse of a private moment with Howie sitting in the dark with the glare from his phone reflecting off his face, the sounds of his wife and child on a video he recorded filling the living room and echoing up to Becca who has long gone to bed without him. We watch as she recognizes the voices and goes downstairs to catch Howie smiling at the memory captured on his phone. We watch her pause and head back upstairs, leaving him to comfort himself in his own way. John Cameron Mitchell uses this scene in an almost voyeuristic manner, encouraging us to contemplate how easy it is to fall into a memory and be caught up by it. Her silence and his smile are actions asking us to recall moments in our lives when we try to gather up the things and the people who have slipped away. Do we, like Howie, find comfort in the repetition of recorded moments, or do we, like Becca, who clears Danny’s drawings off the fridge, try to find comfort in the burial of things belonging to a past that is easier to be forgotten?
Rabbit Hole is an artful examination absence and the awareness of it. It refuses to let us forget Becca’s and Howie’s loss. The film not only allows the characters to search for a form of comfort, but also questions this action. Becca, who refuses to turn to religion, asks her mother, Nat, (Dianne West) if it ever goes away- “it” being the pain in loss, and the awareness of it- the absence of this label only enforces the astounding subtlety of the screenplay. What follows is probably one of the most quietly sincere answers in the film, in which pain or loss is compared to a brick carried in a person’s pocket. After a while the weight of it is forgotten, but sometimes a hand reaches in to search for whatever it is looking for, and it touches the brick, and oh, there it is. West delivers her lines with astounding delicacy and the analogy is simple yet effective.
But why Rabbit Hole? It is the title of a comic book created by Jason (an exquisitely quiet Miles Teller), a high school student connected with the tragedy. It focuses on the idea of alternate universes where copies of us exist in different situations, experiencing various emotions. So perhaps there is comfort in the idea that if you are going through a troubling time, somewhere there is another you who is happy.
With compelling performances and fine direction, Rabbit Hole establishes a message of hope in loss that stays with you long after the closing credits: If you don’t seek comfort in god, or science, or yourself, try searching for it in others and maintain face in public because your private life is divided into sections of time where you can allow yourself to be swallowed up in grief, or reflect upon the remains of the day and what you have to carry on.