John Cameron Mitchell’s film Rabbit Hole explores the complexities of grief and loss, and it uses a beautiful couple to create an immediate sense of juxtaposition. Aaron Eckhart stars alongside Nicole Kidman as a husband and wife coming to terms with the death of their young son. What’s clever about Rabbit Hole is the way that it considers how tragedy affects people, and the different places that they seek solace and comfort.
The film opens with a display of idyllic suburban life, and the initial sequence shows Becca (Kidman) working in a green and leafy garden. It’s full of growing things, and it’s a moment bursting with vibrancy and future promise. Her husband Howie (Eckhart) returns from work and they make a beautiful couple – he’s tall and good looking, and she’s slim, with long auburn hair.
Their home is large, it’s furnished expensively, and their outward appearance is one of success, and happiness. Rabbit Hole plays on the conventional image of a loving marriage, and it uses recognisable character tropes to define this couple. Perfection, idyll, and love are the apparent concerns of the narrative, and Becca certainly considers herself to be a strong mother figure, carefully maintaining her life. She cooks food from scratch, she keeps her home spotless, and she has dinner waiting for Howie when he returns from work.
Rabbit Hole contrasts Becca’s life with her sister Izzy’s (Tammy Blanchard). Becca receives a late night phone call and she has to go and pick Izzy up from jail – she’s been drinking, and misbehaved. The conversation that ensues on the way home reiterates Becca’s superiority complex as she berates her sister’s choices. Izzy tells Becca that she’s pregnant and Becca’s reaction is the first hint that there’s a secret, that there’s something wrong in her life with Howie.
Rabbit Hole is a Mood Piece
From there the film progresses in a series of moods, underscored by an excellent soundtrack. Howie and Becca attend a support group meeting and the truth starts to emerge about their son, and his death. But Becca doesn’t behave well, and after an outburst at a meeting (she makes fun of another mother’s grief), she stops attending the support group. Howie continues to go, but Becca chooses to stay at home and pretend that everything is alright.
Becca and Howie make decisions that are personal, and they don’t talk to one another about their emotions. Howie attempts to have sex with Becca at one point but Becca doesn’t think she’s ready, which frustrates Howie because they haven’t had sex in 8 months. These differences push this ‘perfect’ couple further and further apart.
It seems that the event that forever changed Howie and Becca is one that they can never get over together, and Howie starts hanging out and smoking pot with another member of the support group, Gaby (Sandra Ow). They get on well and they laugh, and joke around with ease. Together they find something new with each other, and instead of the dark and unpleasant relationship between Howie and his wife, there’s fun, and easy escapism.
Becca becomes more difficult to be around. She attacks her mother verbally, she slaps a woman in the supermarket, and she struggles to come to terms with what she’s lost, let alone her grief. One day she spots a young man (Miles Teller, Whiplash) on a school bus and she starts following him around – it emerges that he had something to do with her son’s death. But they form a friendship, and their conversations revolve around parallel universes, and the idea of different lives, and different outcomes.
Becca and Howie are Better Apart
For Howie and Becca it seems that they can still be good people, they can still be kind and interesting, just not with each other. What stands out in Rabbit Hole is the way that the story is told, and the form that the narrative takes. It’s a decidedly cinematic experience, with a reliance on image for exposition, and it plays out in a series of chapters, or stages of grief. There’s an emotive soundtrack, the visuals are often dreamlike, and combined they add to the sense that neither Howie nor Becca are living in reality (at least not yet).
They’re adrift as people and the narrative uses filmic touches to highlight their emotions. Neither character will explicitly discuss the tragedy that occurred, and both have different coping mechanisms that they keep hidden from the other. It works well, as Rabbit Hole’s story exists in the subtext, in the understanding that Becca and Howie have a lot to deal with, but their journey has to be internal.
Life Finds a Way
Slowly they do start to move on. They clear out their son’s room, they put their house up for sale, and they attempt to wrest
some sort of normality from the chaos they’ve experienced. But their lives will never be the same, and that’s the hardest truth for them to realise. Loss, stress, doubt, and finger pointing, eventually give way to acceptance, and perhaps even peace. But the story is in the journey, not the event, or even the outcome, but in the way that people figure out the aftermath, and who they’ve become.
There’s a distinct visual poetry at play in Rabbit Hole, and it’s a cinematic story, told through the use of colour and music. It relies heavily on mood to convey its narrative, and the effect it has is one of empathy, and understanding.
Rabbit Hole’s story isn’t especially innovative, and it plays out mostly as expected, but the skill lies in the way that the story is told. That’s partly down to the excellent performances, it’s also due to the skillful writing and direction, but it’s in the collaboration between those elements that Rabbit Hole finds warmth, humanity, and artistry.
Have you seen Rabbit Hole? Let me know what you think with a comment below.