Let’s face it, some topics are going to move a whole lot of viewers, no matter how badly a filmmaker might botch the execution. There’s a reason why Holocaust documentaries are no-brainers for Oscar nominations, and there’s a reason why cathartic weeping on screen generally inspires cathartic weeping in theater seats. There have been movies about a parent’s mourning that handled it with heartbreaking delicacy (including Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue); there have been movies that turned it into eye-rolling opera (Sean Penn’s “Is that my daughter in there?” showboating in Mystic River). Filmmakers wrestling with such material face the same challenges every time: How do you avoid simply cruising on the inherent emotional power of your subject matter? And how do you balance giving it your own unique touch vs. punching your viewers repeatedly in the tear ducts?
The film version of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Rabbit Hole comes perilously close to spoiling the material under the dreaded Hollywood excuse of “opening the play up for the screen.” The setup finds a couple dealing with the aftermath of a life-altering tragedy: Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost their 4-year-old son Danny to a traffic accident eight months before the events in the story. The wound is still raw as they try group-therapy sessions, and Becca is rattled by her ne’er-do-well, unmarried sister Izzy’s (Tammy Blanchard) announcement that she’s expecting a baby. But she’s even more rattled when she spots on a school bus Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager whose connection to Danny’s death draws Becca to him.
Lindsay-Abaire’s own adapted screenplay retains a lot of what makes the story such a gripping piece of drama. Becca’s overwhelming sense of isolation virtually defines the narrative, as she finds herself unable to find solace or connection even from those who should understand her pain—whether it’s Howie, fellow members of the support group or even her own mother (Dianne Wiest), who also grieves for a dead son. Kidman’s performance is more than solid, weaving its way from her flinty reactions to others’ tears to an awkward attempt to visit her former workplace. When it focuses on the minor-key realities of Becca’s life, Rabbit Hole remains heartbreaking and vital.
But the director here is John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous films—Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus—didn’t exactly ooze quiet restraint (although Shortbus in particular did actually ooze). And some of the decisions for how to translate stage material to the screen feel as misguided as they are unavoidable. The family dog—a key player in the accident that took Danny’s life, and never seen in the play—becomes part of a big hugging crying jag by Howie. One of the support-group members (Sandra Oh) becomes a possible outlet for Howie’s frustrated need for connection, and there’s a new scene involving a frustrated mother in a grocery store who becomes the target of Becca’s pent-up frustrations. These are all nitpicking, though, compared to the hugely misguided inclusion of a flashback to the day of Danny’s death. If we’re thankful for the small favor that he’s not actually shown lying bleeding in the road, we’re expecting far too little of Mitchell.
And yet this is an undeniably powerful piece of writing, and the film doesn’t spoil everything about it that works. The supporting cast is uniformly terrific, particularly Weist, who is spot on in her character’s well-meaning but often counterproductive attempts to console her daughter. The quieter scenes pack the same wallop they do onstage, including the conversations between Becca and Jason that reveal how deeply a really great kid has been shattered by a freak accident. Lindsay-Abaire understood how to earn tears honestly by choosing not to underline tragedy. Rabbit Hole is at its most powerful whenever it’s not operating under the assumption that a film somehow has to be more.
Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Miles Teller