I've been to more than 75 film festivals over the last ten years, so please believe me when I say that each one always offers a movie about "a couple mourning the loss of a child." Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, all of them. I'm pretty sure it's a requirement, along with the melodramas about single moms, the Holocaust documentaries, and something weird from Gregg Araki. So I suppose I could be forgiven for almost overlooking 'Rabbit Hole'. Based only on the festival guide, I knew that the film starred Aaron Eckhart, Nicole Kidman, and Dianne Wiest, that it came from John Cameron Mitchell (the director of 'Shortbus' and 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'), and that it was about (you guessed it) an unhappy married couple who are mourning the loss of their four-year-old son.
But I'm here to see movies, and I certainly like all of the names mentioned above, so in I walked to 'Rabbit Hole', simply hoping that the film wouldn't be too sappy, predictable, or manipulative.
What I ended up watching is, quite simply, one of the best films I've ever seen at a festival. I've always contended that there's no such thing as a "flawless" film, but now I'm going to amend that phrase to read "There's no such thing as a perfect film." Because 'Rabbit Hole' is, as far as I can tell, pretty much flawless.
Yes, the film is about a fractured married couple. Their names are Howie and Becca and they are indeed still mired in a deep valley of depression after the death of their little boy. (That brief synopsis is the most conventional thing about the film.) Howie (Eckhart) seems like he's one "grief stage" ahead of his wife, but they're both still wounded in deep and irreparable ways. Becca (Kidman) distracts herself with a slightly troubled younger sister (and her garden), while Howie tries to put on a brave face for his wife before scurrying off to the living room to watch old videos of his late son. They discuss having a new baby, they contemplate moving to a new house, they try (and fail) at the group therapy process. Eventually Becca finds solace in a very unlikely friend from the neighborhood; Howie continues with the therapy and manages to find a new companion of his own.
If everything that I just described in the previous paragraph sounds like something you've seen before (and probably on the Lifetime Channel), you can rest assured that 'Rabbit Hole' takes a simple and stunning approach to this well-covered material. In other words, this film is conceived and presented by real people. Kidman and Eckhart have never been better; Mitchell strikes an unbelievably effective balancing act between sincerity and well-earned empathy, and the screenplay (by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his stage play) is nothing short of amazing. It's as if the filmmakers watched every single "our child has passed away!" movie -- but only so they'd know what NOT to do on this one.
Howie and Becca fight, and we wince because we've grown to care for these people so damn quickly, but they fight like a true married couple would: quick jolts of misery and anger followed by a casual reconciliation and then ... life goes on. There are easily a dozen scenes in 'Rabbit Hole' that feel like they're going down the conventional road, only to take a quick right at painfully real and effortlessly engaging. The film makes you feel like you're watching your beloved next-door neighbors go through a horrible ordeal, and while you can't do anything to help, you absolutely do hope for their recovery -- or as close to "recovery" as they can get. There's not false note to be found anywhere. When film critics talk about "manipulative" this and "pre-packaged" that, they're referring to the diametric opposite of 'Rabbit Hole'.
As for Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, their work here (especially together) is quite simply amazing. There's such a natural vulnerability to their characters: the way a tragically wounded man will still pull his last verbal punch, because it's just too cruel, or how a desperately unhappy woman may scream horrible things while her eyes are already offering an apology ... the way a nod or a touch or even a change in a wife's voice will speak volumes to an attentive husband. It's simply wonderful to see two seasoned actors letting down their guard in a heartfelt and subtle film that never once goes for the easy cliche or predictable platitude.
As poignant as a bittersweet love letter and as personal as a film can possibly be, 'Rabbit Hole' represents career highs for practically everyone involved. I can't remember the last time a "little drama movie" left me overflowing with this sort of affection, but 'Rabbit Hole' is a very unique and special film. In a word ... flawless.
[Note: I actually know a couple who've gone through a similar tragedy, and I do believe I'll be recommending this film to them. One day. Maybe.]