The theater lights dimmed and the previews came on. After the last one, in that lull between previews and feature when I am usually considering my movie amnesia (“What did I come to see, anyway?”), I leaned over to my friend: “I really want to see that!” my words overlapping with her whispered, “I could never sit through that!”
We were talking about Rabbit Hole (John Cameron Mitchell, 2010), in which Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart play a couple dealing with the death of their child. I understand my friend’s reaction — movie nights are so rare that we usually want a break; it’s hard enough to enjoy a movie like Motherhood, that reflects back the mundane details of our own messy lives, what’s to enjoy in a story about a mother’s worst fear? But I don’t shy away from sad stories. Like Literary Mama’s book columnists, Libby Gruner and Rebecca Steinitz, have both written, I find them compelling. I need sad stories, not necessarily to shine a light on the path that I am walking myself, but to see how others survive what I hardly want to imagine.
So I took myself off to see Rabbit Hole alone, tissues at hand, ready to handle the weepy. Nicole Kidman plays Becca, whose four-year-old son Danny was struck by a car and killed eight months before the film’s action. Becca is the center of the action, in practically every scene, and she’s not necessarily an easy object of sympathy. She’s brusque with her sister, rude to her mom, detached and eye-rolling at a grief group. When another of the parents suggests that God must have taken her child because he needed another angel, Becca can’t keep quiet any longer: “Why didn’t he just make another angel? He’s God, after all.”
She’s a hard woman, this Becca, and with good cause. She’s in a position she didn’t choose, doesn’t like, and doesn’t know quite how to handle, so she’s caustic and awkward but trying still to be authentic, which is why I came to like her so much. She packs up her dead child’s clothes for her newly-pregnant sister saying, “Think of all the money you’ll save!” When her sister demurs, Becca pauses a beat before backing off; “Oh. Of course, it would be weird.”
Becca’s scenes with Jason (Miles Teller), the high school boy who drove the car that hit Danny, are exquisitely painful. They meet and sit side by side on a park bench, and one day he tries to explain, “I might have been going too fast. On that day. Maybe 31, 32…” He’s achingly earnest here, trying to say that because he was glancing down to check the speedometer, he didn’t see the dog, he didn’t see the boy running after his dog. Later, showing Becca the comic book he’s drawn, Rabbit Hole, he explains the idea of parallel worlds; somewhere, he says, through the rabbit hole, they are living different lives. “So these are just the sad versions of us?” Becca asks. “Assuming you believe in science,” Jason responds. “Somewhere out there I’m having a good time,” Becca says, quietly marveling. It’s the most unlikely friendship and the two characters — the boy so open, the woman so remote — couldn’t be more different, but they are, in their halting way, trying to reach and comfort each other.
The film’s less successful in depicting Becca’s relationship with her husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart). Their relationship resists stereotype mostly in the fact that Becca’s the one trying to move on; she’s the one who takes down Danny’s refrigerator art, packs up the plastic cups, wants the booster seat out of the car; she’s haunted by his fingerprints on the doorjambs, while Howie, who stays up late watching videos of Danny, finds those marks comforting. Their inevitable fight over their different ways of grieving feels obvious and forced, the couple reduced to banalities like Becca’s “It feels like maybe I don’t feel badly enough for you.”
But then we get Becca’s mother Nat, played by Dianne Wiest, whose own grown son (Becca’s brother) died of a drug overdose, and in a scene where she’s helping Becca pack, I finally needed my tissues. Becca asks her mom about navigating this emotional terrain, “Does it ever go away?”
“No,” Nat answers. “It changes though.”
“I don’t know. The weight of it. I guess at some point it becomes bearable, something you can carry around like a brick in your pocket. Not that you like it exactly, but it’s what you’ve got instead of your son. So you carry it around. Which is…”
“Which is what?”
In the end, Rabbit Hole offers no real answers about surviving the death of a child, it just shows a group of people muddling through, and I appreciate the honesty of that. In the film’s closing moments, Becca asks Howie, “So, what are we going to do?” “About what?” he asks. “I don’t know,” she answers, “Just pick something.” And instead of reaching for something big, the film keeps to Nat’s modest, realistic “fine.” Howie suggests shopping for a friend’s birthday present, wrapping it, hosting a cookout for the party; he continues to narrate, step by step, how they will get through the party as we’re offered scenes from the party, his narration continuing in voice-over. The camera then returns to the couple sitting in the garden, post-party, Becca in voice-over asking, “Then what?” To which Howie responds simply, “I don’t know. Something, though.” And the film closes with the couple holding hands, staring straight ahead, ready to face another day.