On paper, John Cameron Mitchell's "Rabbit Hole" would seem to be the most dour of viewing experiences: A movie about a couple dealing with the death of their young son, and how to continue in its wake. What it has in common with Mitchell's debut movie, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," however, is that in spite of it subject matter its a little joy to watch and is spiked throughout with humorous touches that make it all the sweeter to take in.
And it certainly doesn't hurt that the couple at the center of this is played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. Kidman, in particular, is at her very best here, and received a Best Actress Oscar nomination, though of course lost out (rightly) to Natalie Portman for "Black Swan" in a very talented field.
From the very beginning of "Rabbit Hole," it's impossible to keep your eyes off of Kidman's Becca. Even when she's clearly just going through the motions of her daily life (standing in front of the dryer, for example, the whole time that clothes are drying), you can see in her face everything that she craves and fears all at once, mostly re-engagement with the world around her. That starts with her husband, Howie (Eckhart), from whom she's been distant ever since their young son Danny was killed in a car crash several months earlier. Though the role as written is pretty much to react to Kidman's emotional ride, Eckhart nonetheless delivers a nuanced performance.
And as Becca's world slowly starts to re-expand, a wicked humor creeps into the script by David Lindsay-Abaire, based on his stage play. It comes first with her family, including misfit sister Izzy (who for unspecified reasons has just managed to somehow get fired from Applebee's), played by Tammy Blanchard, and her over-empathetic mother, played with natural ease by Dianne Wiest, mostly in the form of what you can and can't talk about in such situations.
The humor gets more wicked as Howie and Becca attend a support group for parents who have suffered the same tragedy with a child, an activity Becca just can't stand. It's an uncomfortable delight to watch the contempt unfurl on her face before she explodes on some poor sap who had the gumption to say "God needed another angel." It's here also that we meet Gaby (Sandra Oh), whose natural face for empathy belies the role she will play of temptress.
Mitchell and Abaire slowly add to their tale a mystery that keeps the story moving, cleverly introduced and framed by the drawing of what we eventually find out is a comic book. As Becca first stalks and then confronts a young man in the neighborhood (I won't spoil it by telling you who he is), their secret encounters are increasingly poignant without ever being too mawkish.
And Mitchell, who shows a deft directing hand throughout, is at his best in the final third. Without ever hitting us over the head with it, as Becca starts to slowly re-engage with the world, he equally slowly lightens the color palette, giving the movie a "Virgin Suicides"-kind of dream-like feel by the time she reaches the long night that will bring her back.
Be warned: This is a world of extremely raw emotions, and none of them are held back here. But what makes Mitchell's movie so entertaining is that it's ultimately about life rather than death, and just how to go about living it. In the end, that - and a sublime performance from Nicole Kidman - are what make "Rabbit Hole" well worth checking out on DVD.