Life for a happy couple is turned upside down after their young son dies in an accident. Based on a play by David Lindsay-Abaire.

4
Good grief.

Rabbit Hole should enjoy positive word of mouth from an arthouse audience, grateful for its honest approach to the mammoth task of trying to reassemble a puzzle when a significant piece of it is missing.

The film opens with Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) in their picture-perfect cottage in the leafy suburbs of outer New York. Becca tends to the garden and maintains a polite remove from a nervous, well-meaning neighbour; she sidesteps a dinner invitation and opts to stay in and cook pasta with Howie. A late night phone call disturbs the peace and a loaded glance between the two infers previous experience with unexpected calamity. Fortunately, the nature of tonight's call registers as a mere irritation on their bad news barometer, and Becca is summoned to bail out her wayward, bar-brawling sister.

The news of her sister’s pregnancy unseats pangs of an undefined nature within Becca, and it transpires that barely six months has passed since Becca and Howie lost their young son in a terrifying confluence of infant tunnel vision and driver inexperience (the boy chased the family dog and ran into the path of an oncoming car).

Six months on from the tragedy, the shock has given way to a kind of quiet numbness within Becca and Howie; they grapple with the idea of 'moving on’, whilst simultaneously experiencing the paralysing guilt associated with embarking on a life that won’t include their son.

Their coping mechanisms are worlds apart: Becca wants to clean the house and put the painful daily reminders in storage; Howie clings closer to the iPhone videos, kindy crafts and tiny t-shirts, for fear of forgetting their owner. Inevitably, her 'push’ response chafes against his 'pull’; they seek out the confidences of others, and try to navigate a sensible path through the momentum of bad decision-making that emanates from a worldview of grief.

Rabbit Hole could give rise to the pejoratives 'actors’ piece’ or worse, 'Oscar bait’, for the chest pounding potential of its bleak subject matter. But director John Cameron Mitchell’s restrained handling of the film’s rawest moments keeps it from descending into soul-wrenching lamentations. It’s also surprisingly funny; the intelligent screenplay is peppered with moments of unexpected hilarity and awkwardness that ring true as recognisable aspects of the grieving process.

Producer Kidman was the driving force behind this adaptation of the acclaimed play, and her commitment to its honest realisation extends to her performance as Becca. There's a thematic link back to her other role as a grieving mum in the genre cracker Dead Calm, but here she's all at sea and on the defensive in a far less literal way. 

As Becca, she is prickly and argumentative, and is especially intolerant of the faith-based theories that prop up fellow grievers in her support group: "I’d like to go...nooow," she whisper-shouts, to her shell-shocked husband, when it's cleat that her agnostic interjections have sucked the air out of the room.

On her character’s trajectory towards change, Kidman gets to lock horns with the film’s entire support cast. Diane Weist is typically reliable as the brash mother, Nat, whose life of hard knocks has informed her weathered perspective on the nature of grief, which Becca can’t contemplate with wounds so raw.

Though Kidman and Aaron Eckhart share a natural chemistry that points to a believable back-story, theirs isn’t the most significant relationship of the film. The scenes she shares with Miles Teller as her unlikely confidante – an adolescent boy with a shared experience of tragedy – are at turns, surprising, funny and moving.

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Watch 'Rabbit Hole' at SBS on Demand now

(M)

 

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