Rabbit Hole begins eight months after affluent suburban New Yorkers Becca (Nicole Kidman, also the film’s producer) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost their four-year-old Danny to a car accident, so the more flamboyant displays of grief have receded, and the couple is now entrenched in establishing a new status quo, grudgingly accepting, or at least pretending to accept, that life somehow goes on. Because the object of loss is already absent, our story, adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his own play, can focus more closely on the mid- to long-term effects of Danny’s death on his parents’ marriage. While Becca appears determined to assume control of the situation and coolly goes about redistributing Danny’s things, Howie gets up nights to watch home movies and resolves to continue with group therapy, even after Becca dismisses some fellow grieving parents’ attempt to find consolation in religious thinking (a scene that’s probably devastating for the couple on the receiving end, but is unnervingly amusing for the rest of us). Their sex life has evaporated and shows no sign or return, despite Howie’s plying of Becca with back rubs and Al Green. The question swiftly arises as to whether or not Becca and Howie’s relationship can endure such a catastrophic rupture.
Soon Becca is stalking a teenage boy (I initially thought, and sort of hoped, that it was because the boy looked like the teenaged version of Danny, but the truth is slightly less neurotic) while Howie enters into a precarious friendship with someone from group (Sandra Oh). These relationships, not extramarital exactly, but rather extra-domestic, seem designed to imbue both characters with intricate psychologies, and the performances, from Kidman especially, who’s always so good with these sorts of icy emotional renegades, are richly layered. Nonetheless, the writing leaves the couple in general, and Howie in particular, feeling more like sketches than full characters, their vagueness exacerbated by the film’s broadly conceived design elements, the almost uniformly drab grays and beiges of the couple’s clothing and home décor, or details like the art photos of empty cavities of buildings mounted on their otherwise sparely adorned living room walls.
Thankfully Rabbit Hole is festooned with a supporting cast who supply such colour and funk so as to set Becca and Howie’s ostentatiously muted realm into relief. Oh injects some terrific deadpan comedy, sometimes without saying a word—just catch the look on her face when, having smoked a bowl before group one night, she tries not to crack up over another man’s catalogue of miseries. It’s also nice to see Giancarlo Esposito turn up as the musical dad to Becca’s unborn niece, even if he barely gets to speak. But the biggest acting treat comes from Diane Wiest as Becca’s mom Nat, who so desperately wants to comfort her daughter but is most often pushed away. In her worn-out old sweaters, Nat clearly lives somewhere on the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum from Becca and Howie (not to mention from Gina, Wiest’s wonderful recurring character on HBO’s In Treatment) but Wiest wisely eschews from “playing” Nat’s class, just as director John Cameron Mitchell eschews from over-emphasizing it. Wiest instead relishes in Nat’s earthiness and middling ability to disguise her true emotions, even when she’s deliberately trying to keep potentially spiky moments cheerful, as in the scene where Becca’s sister Izzy is celebrating her birthday in a bowling alley and Becca gives her a fancy set of towels instead of something that might acknowledge Izzy’s advanced pregnancy. Even the way Wiest lets out this forced-excited little “Aw!” when the gift is unwrapped—like a little burp accidentally let loose in public—before suddenly retreating, provides her scenes in Rabbit Hole with such texture, warmth, and a welcome untidiness. It goes to show how sometimes the investments a film makes in its background can make so much richer all that passes in its foreground.