Director: John Cameron Mitchell
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I just read a news report about how the parents of a Rutgers University student who killed himself after his roommate allegedly used a spycam to record him having sex with a man and then posted the video on the Internet intend to get even. They plan to sue the university. Their suit states that “it appears Rutgers University failed to act, failed to put in place and/or failed to implement and enforce policies and practices that would have prevented or deterred such acts, and that Rutgers failed to act timely and appropriately.” In legalese, their action is known as a wrongful death lawsuit. This type of lawsuit can serve justice when gross negligence is uncovered—for example, medical malpractice or police brutality—forcing not only reparations, but also reforms to be put in place. It is also a device that allows angry, grieving people to take their rage out on anyone in the vicinity of their pain.
Here in the United States, people are exceedingly fond of using the courts to intimidate and beat each other up. Life is no longer left to chance when we can always find someone to blame for our misfortunes and can turn to an exceedingly obliging cadre of plaintiff’s attorneys who are happy to take our money or a percentage of the damages awarded to soothe our wounds by wrecking holy hell on the scalawags who dared to rain on our parade. It takes a lot of bravery for people to recognize that playing the blame game, either in the hard form of a lawsuit or even physical violence, or in lesser forms like grudge-holding and verbal abuse, serves little or no purpose other than vengeance and a deflection of guilt. For people do indeed feel a great deal of guilt for the harm they cause others, even if they had absolutely no control over the bad things that happened. And that guilt can be downright unbearable.
Rabbit Hole, adapted for the screen by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer-Prize-winning play, is a film that represents an advance in the way we think of tragedies, the vast majority of which are accidental. It posits that we’ll feel angry, sad, disconnected, and more than a little crazy, but that we don’t have to find someone to blame in order to deal with our loss and get on with our lives. Unlike a very similar film from three decades ago, Ordinary People (1980), Rabbit Hole shows the anger and loss two parents feel when their 4-year-old son is run down by a car, but it avoids the blame game that subtly inflected that film and that screamed out against the mother in the book by Judith Guest on which Robert Redford’s film was based.
Rabbit Hole opens with close-ups and overhead shots of Becca (Nicole Kidman) emptying bags of topsoil onto her garden beds, working it into the earth below with her hands, and planting flowers along the edge of the bed. Her next-door neighbor Peg (Patricia Kalember) comes over to invite Becca and her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) over that evening for a barbecue. Becca makes an excuse and then abruptly stares down at her neighbor’s feet; Peg has inadvertently trampled one of the newly planted flowers. Apologizing and excusing herself awkwardly, she leaves, and Becca bends down to inspect the damage; the flower is irretrievably broken. Not a very subtle way to open a movie about the loss of a child, but from there on out, nothing about this film trafficks in cliché.
Becca and Howie go through each week the way others in their situation might. Becca, who used to work at Sotheby’s in New York, quit her job—whether after her son Danny’s birth or death is never revealed—and stays at home cooking, baking, working out, and tending to the house. Howie goes to work, plays squash with a colleague, and tries to reach out to a closed-off Becca. Both of them attend a support group for parents who have lost children, though Becca resists the help the other parents try to offer and openly criticizes a couple who says their daughter died because God needed another angel. “Why didn’t He just make one?” she says. “He’s God after all!” Not surprisingly, this is Becca’s last group session. Howie, more open in his grieving, watches a video of Danny on his cellphone each evening and continues to go to group without Becca.
The outside world confronts the damaged parents with challenges. Becca’s ne’er-do-well sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) reveals that she is pregnant by her boyfriend Auggie (Giancarlo Esposito, in a welcome performance from a rarely seen favorite of mine), answering Becca’s question about why she told their mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) first, “Why do you think?” Becca’s best friend Debbie (Julie Lauren) has avoided Becca since the funeral. One day, Becca drives alongside a school bus and spies Jason (a brilliant Miles Teller), the teenager who drove the car that killed Danny, dangerously running a red light herself to keep up with the bus so that she can see where he lives. When the senior member of the support group, Gaby (Sandra Oh), reveals to Howie that her husband has left her, he is tempted to retreat into physical comfort with her.
What Rabbit Hole does so well is individualize each character while covering the spectrum of possibilities that face parents who lose children. The film not only dignifies the plight of those who lose young children, but it also offers sympathy for those whose children are grown. It even shows how someone most of us would say “good riddance” about was once someone’s bright-faced boy or girl, innocent and full of promise. Nat incurs Becca’s wrath when she compares the loss of her son, a 30-year-old junkie who OD’d, to Danny. “He was still my son!” Nat shoots back painfully. Later, Becca will seek her mother’s advice, wondering if the pain ever goes away. “No, but it changes,” Nat answers, “it becomes a brick you carry around in your pocket. And you’re glad it’s there.” This reassures Becca, who was unsettled by Howie’s accusation that she is trying to erase Danny by giving his clothes away, taking his art projects off the refrigerator, wanting to sell the house, and deleting the video from his cellphone—another accident that, tellingly, Howie thinks was deliberate.
Howie doesn’t understand, however, why Becca has been meeting with Jason. The young man is grief-stricken himself about the accident. He tries to express his guilt, saying in an almost comically serious tone that he thinks he might have been driving too fast, “I may have been going 31 or 32, and the speed limit is 30.” The truth is that he swerved to avoid hitting Danny’s beloved dog, and didn’t see Danny running after the dog until it was too late. This kind of second-guessing is familiar to Becca, and to Howie, who wonder if everything would have been all right if they had just done one thing different that awful day. As they see it, they failed in their job as parents to protect their child, but no one can be insulated from every possible danger, though the demand for such certainty seems to be more shrill than ever these days.
I was extremely impressed with all of the performances in this film and the very real family all the principals created. Kidman uses her somewhat self-contained style to great effect here, melting ever so slightly a bit at a time as the film moves into its late stages. Her work with Blanchard creates a very believable dynamic of two sisters, one the golden girl and the other the butt of criticism, who fall easily into judgment and defensiveness. The root of their personalities, and by inference, their druggie brother, is their alcoholic mom. Wiest has never been better, suggesting a crazy coarseness that mingles love and understanding with narcissistic self-pity. Eckhart is convincing as a man who is sensitive, but also can be very stubborn about his wife’s “incorrect” behavior. He doesn’t see his own contradictions very clearly, screaming self-righteously at Jason when he comes into their home during a real estate open house, and then telling Becca after Jason has left to be sure he knows they don’t blame him.
Eventually, Howie and Becca begin to accept their differing ways of grieving, and take some tentative steps toward continuing the lives they had mainly put on hold. Becca calls Debbie and invites her to a small cookout in the backyard. Maybe Howie and Becca will eventually split up just like Gaby and her husband did 8 years after they lost their child. In this life, there are no guarantees. But really, it’s nobody’s fault.