As a Broadway play, Rabbit Hole, won the Pulitzer Prize for 2007. The film version expands the stage’s limitations, yet keeps the lyrical intensity of writer David Lindsay-Abaire’s language and the painful realism of his grief-stricken characters. It’s a flawless, small film, yet so touching that it made it to my Top Ten Best List, alongside such showy productions as Inception and Shutter Island.
You might think that a man known mostly for his campy film about a transsexual punk rocker (Hedwig And The Angry Inch) is an odd choice to direct a low-key, elegant film. It turns out John Cameron Mitchell was the perfect director for it. He masterfully adds numerous theatrical touches, including outrageous humor, to make this story about sadness surprisingly delightful and upbeat.
In the garden of a storybook-pretty house, Becca (Nicole Kidman) is planting a row of flowers. Her fingers dig into the deep rich earth to place the last flower snug in its protective hole. A neighbor arrives unexpectedly, full of rehearsed cheerfulness. She accidentally steps on the flower and crushes it.
Becca stiffens in horror. The look that flits across her face indicates that she wants to strangle the flower killer. Instead she eases the woman out of her yard, dismissing her awkward apologies with a wan, courteous smile. Becca can’t help but look back at the broken flower, her shoulders slumped in sorrow. In these tiny moments, Nicole Kidman has let us know that this is the way Becca handles grief, by herself, with rage lurking just under the surface.
When her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) comes home, Becca is merrily making a gourmet meal. It smells so good, Howie tries to give her a thank-you snuggle, but she squirms away from him. From his look of misery, we know that Howie, unlike Becca, doesn’t want to keep grieving by himself. Eight months earlier their 4-year old son Danny was playing in the yard with his beloved dog. The phone rang and Becca went inside to answer it. She hadn’t noticed that Howie left the gate unlocked. The dog chased a squirrel into the street and Danny ran after him. Going a mile or two over the speed limit was a car driven by 16-year old Jason (Miles Teller). He swerved to avoid the dog, but struck and killed Danny.
At the group bereavement session that evening, Becca explodes at a couple who claim that God let leukemia kill their daughter because He wanted her to be an angel in heaven. “Why didn’t he just make one?” Becca yells. “Another angel? I mean, he’s God after all. Why didn’t he make another angel?”
Becca’s cruelty points out what Howie already knows. He seeks help from friends and outsiders, such as pot-smoking Gaby from the group (Sandra Oh), but no one can help Becca. Not her own sweet mother, Nat, (Dianne Weist) who, after eleven years is still grieving the loss of her 30-year old son. Nor her sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) who is blissfully pregnant.
Becca finds herself eerily drawn to an unlikely new friend — the teenager who killed her son. They meet in the park and talk. Jason shares with Becca the elaborate comic book he is drawing. Named “Rabbit Hole,” it’s the vivid story of a boy who goes into a parallel universe in search of his missing father. Could Becca find her own parallel universe?
Despite the tag line of the film, Becca learns that love does not get you through grief. Nor do friends or the advice of others. If you’re lucky to get it, the grace of God might help. And time, as her mother tells her, time changes the grief into something bearable, but time moves at its own pace, not yours. The only way to get through the rabbit hole of grief is to keep going.