There is no right way to grieve, just as there is no time limit on how long that grief should last. Eight months after the accidental death of their young son, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are still feeling the loss but each is dealing with it in their own way; Becca seemingly moving forward, Howie languishing in his pain.
The premise sounds heavy going, but one of the surprising elements of John Cameron Mitchell's film of David Lindsay-Abaire's stageplay, which the playwright has adapted, is the humour. Despite the subject matter – the 'dead child' movie has almost become a genre in itself, and often used to exploit easy emotions – Rabbit Hole is far from depressing. Like the characters themselves, you'll be surprised to find yourself laughing.
A lot of this humour is generated by Dianne Wiest, who as Becca's mother doesn't seem to understand her daughter and is therefore always saying the wrong thing. She, too, is grieving the loss of a child – her son having died years earlier from a drug overdose – and her scene with Becca, where she explains how grief never really leaves but becomes a part of you, is one of the film's most poignant.
Poignant, too, is Becca's awkward relationship with Jason (Miles Teller), the teenager driving the car that claimed her son's life. Jason, about to complete high school, is an aspiring artist who believes in parallel worlds, accessed through the rabbit holes of the title. Rather than expressing anger at the young man, Becca's maternal instincts seem to have drawn her to this boy.
I've always found Kidman to be at her best when she plays cold or prickly characters; the fame-craving weather girl in To Die For (1995), the distant wife in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002). But her Becca isn't cold in an uncaring way but more as a defense mechanism, and it's an affecting moment when those defenses finally come down. It's easily Kidman's best performance in years and not undeserving of its awards attention.
The real revelation, however, is Aaron Eckhart. Always a solid performer, I've often found his acting overshadowed by his almost caricatured handsomeness and that superhero jaw. But it's the maelstrom of emotions – the sadness, the anger, the hurt – which Eckhart makes palpable in a man trying to reconnect with his wife that make it a memorable performance, and the equal to Kidman's.
Mitchell, better known for more outrageous fare Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and Shortbus (2006), directs his most mainstream film to date. That doesn't it mean it's dumbed down or easily accessible. Rabbit Hole isn't a fun night out at the movies, but it rewards with its restraint, humour and heart.