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Movie Review

Pain painted beautifully

‘Rabbit Hole’ delves deep into loss with real emotion — and humor

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 24, 2010

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At first glance, “Rabbit Hole’’ is this year’s entry in Oscar’s semiannual grief-porn category. Look at the posters, the trailers, the stills — surely this tale of parents coping with the death of their 5-year-old son is a sensitive and thoroughly depressing downer. Well, no, it’s more than that — a lot more. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, brought to the screen by the quixotically gifted playwright-turned-filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’’ “Shortbus’’), and acted with frighteningly calm clarity by its stars, “Rabbit Hole’’ is something altogether different: a comedy about loss.

A comedy? In the sense that bleak laughter is the last resort of the afflicted, yes. Bearing a rough resemblance to 2006’s “Little Children’’ in its open-eyed take on suburban discontents, this pained, often beautiful film is about two people who’ve essentially died yet are surprised — and saddened, and annoyed — to discover they’re still living. The auto accident that claimed their son is eight months in the past when “Rabbit Hole’’ opens, but Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) are just coming out of a fugue state of mourning. What does that look like and will the world let them? These are the questions the movie ponders.

They go to group counseling with other grieving parents, but Becca is creeped out by the God talk and by the couples who’ve been attending for years. However she chooses to cope with her pain, it won’t be by becoming addicted to it. So she starts clearing out the boy’s closet and taking his drawings off the fridge; in one awful scene, she “accidentally’’ deletes a video from her husband’s iPhone. To Howie, this is an act of sacrilege, something so wrong he can barely put words to it.

Lindsay-Abaire’s dialogue and Mitchell’s gentle direction never press the film’s points. Instead, they simply observe as the couple run on parallel tracks, veering away and toward each other. Howie strikes up a secret friendship with one of the counseling group’s moms (Sandra Oh) that involves grateful flirtation and other illicit activities. Becca chooses to stalk the teenage boy (Miles Teller) who drove the car that hit their son, eventually sharing with him a hesitant but genuine companionship of the damned. Teller is very good as an average kid whose sudden acquaintance with guilt has left him decades older than his peers.

These characters cling to each other with the camaraderie of people who’ve been through the worst. They speak a language — caustic, stunned, often brutally funny — that most of us never want to learn. “Rabbit Hole’’ understands that we treat other people’s tragedies as contagion, a virus that spreads into every corner of our forced good cheer. One of Becca’s friends still hasn’t worked up the nerve to call her. In the movie’s most unsettling scene, Howie shows the house to prospective buyers, comes to his son’s room, and terrifies the couple with his low-key acknowledgment of disaster. They can’t get out of there fast enough — death might be catching.

Mitchell opens the play up to the neat lawns of the New York suburbs, but “Rabbit Hole’’ dips into blue-collar territory whenever Becca visits her blowsy mother (Dianne Wiest) and party-girl sister (Tammy Blanchard). The mother keeps trying to tie her daughter’s loss to the death of her own son — older and from his own lousy choices — but Becca’s having none of it. Among other things, “Rabbit Hole’’ is about the fierce protectiveness with which we own our sorrows, as well as our difficulty in giving them away.

Still, these scenes feel like a misstep. Brittle and contained, Becca doesn’t seem like she comes from the same planet, let alone the same clan, as the other two women. That may be the point. She’s part of a larger family now.

Eckhart works close to the top of his range here — Howie is a guy’s guy ill-equipped to fight something he can’t see — but Kidman simply goes above and beyond. The actress has taken a lot of guff in the past few years for misadventures both cinematic and cosmetic, but this is a subtle, bone-deep performance, attuned to impatience and rage, gallows humor and the eeriest sort of quiet. “Rabbit Hole’’ is a personal project for Kidman — she produced the film after falling in love with the play — and it seems to have revived the quickness in her. That ice-blue gaze has found its focus again, and it looks deep into the one thing none of us want to face.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

RABBIT HOLE Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell

Written by: David Lindsay-Abaire

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Miles Teller, Dianne Wiest, Tammy Blanchard, Sandra Oh

At: Boston Common, Kendall Square

Running time: 91 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (mature thematic material, some drug use, and language)

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