As stage adaptations go, John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole is admirably inconspicuous. Though his glam-rock opera Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his directorial debut, was also adapted from a theatrical production, both it and 2006's Shortbus are as showy and flamboyant as his latest film is meditative, and the poise of Mitchell's transition from cult movies to prestige pics is one of the year's most welcome surprises. What Mitchell's three films have in common, and what we can interpret as his point of view, is an overriding humanity, something too often missing from both cult favorites and awards candidates, and most other types of movies as well.
What distinguishes Rabbit Hole most among this past year's films, though, has everything to do with its origins, specifically what David Lindsay-Abaire's Pulitzer Prize-winning play says about how differently grief and loss are typically deployed onscreen and onstage. They're perennial themes, but the structure and rhythm we expect from a film or television show have a way of compromising a crucial purity. There are some emotions so big they supersede story, and Mitchell is tasteful in allowing just that to happen.
There is a story, of course, or at least a situation. It's been eight months since Becca and Howie (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) lost their 4-year-old son in an accident, and their shared scars are beginning to split. Becca takes tentative steps toward moving on; clothes and artifacts are moved to boxes or charity bins, overtures are made toward rejoining the work force, and her couples' support group tenure ends caustically, in response to anodyne talk of angels. Howie, on the other hand, remains fixated on the past, indulging his sorrow in cellphone videos and fingerpaintings on the fridge. As their grief evolves it becomes clear that their love for each other may not be the deciding factor in the fate of their marriage.
It sounds dour, and often enough is. Rabbit Hole wastes no opportunity to prod at all the ways loss—of a child, of a marriage, of the little things that never go back to normal—informs the behavior of those who have faced it. The margins are filled in with characters like Becca's mother (Dianne Weist) and newly-pregnant sister (Tammy Blanchard), and a third figure who comes to mean more than anyone else to Becca's trajectory. (Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his own script, is patient in his reveal of details, and I hesitate to unfold more than necessary.) Each of them offers not only a direct perspective on Becca's feelings but also a unique emotional point of view, which is useful, but so exhaustive as to be on-the-nose, and prone to push the film too far into sadness. It hurts, too, that levity is scarce, except for a second incident between the support group and a stoned Howie that tilts suddenly into too-uncomfortable-to-look humor.
The heaviness is excusable in part because Mitchell, for the most part, refuses the shades of irony and cynicism that dominate American independent films in this mode. (The movie sometimes recalls Todd Field's Little Children, without the self-consciousness.) His style is cold at first, but as Becca moves forward the film opens up to a kind of naturalism, coming to a head halfway through as she and Howie find temporary catharsis in brutal truths. Kidman and Eckhart, both occasionally transparent in other roles, have rarely been better.
Still, it's the humanism of the play itself that makes Rabbit Hole so affecting. In presenting grief as both widely shared and intensely personal, it insists that loss is about the survivors, and how sharing in, causing, or simply knowing nothing about someone's sorrow can color our interactions at any moment. And in the end it points toward a capacity for resilience, however incomplete, that accommodates life's tragedies. Grief is inevitable, comfort is available, and Rabbit Hole is enthralling in its intelligence about both.