In the opening scenes of Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play characters who look the part of a content, happily settled married couple. She tends the garden and politely turns down a dinner invitation so they can stay in alone together. He flirts with her as she prepares a risotto. Then, when the phone rings at a too-late hour, the looks on their faces tell another story. These are people who’ve learned how easily chance can make a life collapse. The call isn’t serious bad news—Kidman’s rough-edged sister (Tammy Blanchard) just needs to be bailed out after a bar fight—but they’ve known bad news, and recently. The fear in their eyes at the ringing of the phone suggests a hurt too fresh for it to be any other way.
In fact, it’s been only eight months since they lost their 4-year-old son when he ran out in the street in front of a passing car. The event has left them shattered, and as they try to put themselves together, they’ve begun to discover that the pieces don’t fit like they used to. He finds comfort in a group for grieving parents. She tries her best to bottle her grief inside, but gets frustrated when her mother (Dianne Wiest) tries to be helpful. And when nobody’s looking, she quietly, and for no discernible purpose, follows the blameless teen driver (Miles Teller) who struck their child.
Adapting an acclaimed play by David Lindsay-Abaire (who also scripted), John Cameron Mitchell directs Rabbit Hole with—apart from a few key moments—an almost TV-movie-like lack of adornment. That’s a smart choice. Any of the flourishes Mitchell brought to Hedwig And The Angry Inch and Shortbus would get in the way of the emotionally fraught material. The plainness serves it, keeping the focus on the exceptional performances and the way grief keeps breaking through into everyday life at unexpected moments.
Rabbit Hole is a tremendously sad movie, but it’s also the furthest thing from a miserablist wallow, portraying grief as something that doesn’t arrive in neat stages, but in unpredictable waves with forceful undercurrents. The film is also unpredictable in its own way, setting up sensational plot developments that never arrive, ones that would break the film’s concentration on people trying to understand why so much weight has landed on their shoulders, and how, or even whether, they can learn to carry it.