Grief is hard to get right. Not many of us carry on as tortured ballerinas, or steal people’s secrets by sneaking into their subconscious, or create social networks of gargantuan size. But all of us, in some way or another, have lived through grief, which is why so many movies concern themselves with the topic. It’s also the reason why so many of them screw it up.
Many films about child loss, including several good ones, only focus on one specific step of the grieving process. In the Bedroom is about denial. Mystic River is anger. 21 Grams is bargaining. Ordinary People, depression. Then they all reach so form of acceptance. Cue credits.
Rabbit Hole, however, manages to successfully weave in every step of the process, in a way that makes it impossible to label.
The film has several things working in its favor, the initial one being where the story begins. Eight months after the horrific, albeit accidental, death of their four year old son, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) appear to be back on track. That is, of course, until we get to know them.
Their shared grief, as it always does, manifests itself differently in each of them. She’s stoic, repressed and angry. He’s lonely, smiling and ready to move on. Characters like this are often displayed as cookie cutter. Not here, which matters largely on the skill of the actor’s playing them.
Nicole Kidman, in her best, most subtly ferocious role since Dogville, is remarkable as Becca. She flips everything into an argument: a gentle gesture from her husband, words of calm from her mother, a heartfelt invitation from a neighbor; everything is justified to her favor. Everyone else is in the wrong.
Then there’s Aaron Eckhart, one of the most effortlessly charming actors currently working in film, going pound for pound with Kidman. Eckhart plays Howie as a caring, loyal man. The kind of guy that is constantly apologizing for the unpleasantness of his wife. But it’s in his fleeting moments of sheer rage that Eckhart excels here.
I haven’t a clue why these two aren’t getting more awards buzz. Perhaps because a movie about a couple losing their child isn’t what most people want to see around the holidays.
That’s understandable, but I’d be remised to not mention the thing that disturbed me most about the film: its lacerating humor. There are sentences of dialogue that are so funny in their truthfulness, that the audience doesn’t know if it’s appropriate to laugh or not. But after a while, we come to realize, we have to.
Grief is exactly like that. If you don’t laugh through it, you’ll never make it. A-