“I’m just trying to get things back into shape,” announces Nicole Kidman’s Becca, sociably, to a neighbour inquiring about her garden, in the excellent opening sequence to Rabbit Hole (2010). The line serves as an ideal entry point to John Cameron Mitchell’s film, which explores the attempts of Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) to "get things back into shape" following the death of their young son Danny in a road accident eight months previously. The drama comes from the extent to which their responses to the tragedy diverge. Howie wants to attend group therapy sessions and charges Becca with erasing any trace of their son from the home. Becca accuses Howie of pressurising her into having another child. Gradually, the couple start to pursue new acquaintanceships, Howie with a woman (Sandra Oh) that he meets at the therapy sessions, and Becca with the teenage boy, Jason (Miles Teller), who caused Danny's death.
Adapted by David Lindsay Abaire from his play, this mostly quiet drama seems a distinct change of tack for Mitchell after the wild provocations of Shortbus (2006). But as in that movie the best scenes here are fresh and perceptive, with surprising details. Abaire writes good, tart dialogue for the most part, and the actors' pleasure in the strong material is palpable. After a few years of constrained and sometimes awkward performances, it’s great to see Kidman acting on instinct once again and delivering a compelling, skilfull performance that's among her best screen work. Her line readings have wit and surprise, and she never seeks to make Becca too conventionally likeable. Eckhart is solid too, though a case could be made that it’s Kidman’s scenes with the secondary characters that are the emotional bedrock of the movie. She and Teller are particularly good together, and there’s excellent support from Tammy Blanchard as Becca’s pregnant sister, and from Dianne Wiest who brings total conviction, humour and poignancy to her role as Becca’s mother. She’s rewarded with the movie’s best scene.
A few scenes strike false notes. The tone seems slightly off in all of the "group" sequences, and Mitchell occasionally indulges in some crude cross-cutting and obtrusive “opening-out” of the play that renders several moments too obvious. And the attempts at humour sometimes feel forced, as if Mitchell and Abaire were saying: “See! This isn’t as much of a downer as you were expecting, is it!?” More revealing in its quieter episodes than its big emotional outbursts, Rabbit Hole is nonetheless a distinctive, intelligent and often insightful film, and one that’s fully deserving of your attention.