Film Review: Rabbit Hole

Adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the aftermath of a child's death sadly squanders enormous talents in a bloodless, emotionally inert drama.

The play on which it's based won the Pulitzer Prize. The playwright adapted it himself. The cast is highly talented, with a producer-star who did it as a labor of love. And it all came together under a director with impeccable art-film credentials.

So why is Rabbit Hole, about a couple trying to cope with the death of their young son—one of the most horrifying things human beings can face, and tremendous grist for riveting drama—so cold, brittle and, dare we say, lifeless?

Nicole Kidman—whose production company Blossom Films shepherded this adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire's 2005 play—steps into Cynthia Nixon's Tony Award-winning role from the 2006 Broadway production. As Becca Corbett, whose son Danny fatally chased the family dog into the street and oncoming traffic eight months earlier, she sleepwalks through each day a Stepford zombie, smiling at the concerned and caring neighbors, fixing dinner for her suit-and-tie executive husband Howie (Aaron Eckhart) and only occasionally letting her well-earned bitterness and anger out. The movie's best scene may be the brief moment she laconically but pointedly confronts another couple in their child-loss counseling group, questioning their reasoning that it was God's plan and He needed another angel. "Why doesn't God just make another angel?" she asks simply. "Poof!" she says, making a gesture. After all, "He's God."

That layered subtlety, that feeling of a living, breathing person inside that implacable skin, rarely turns up again in a performance so controlled that even when Becca and Howie have their inevitable shouting match, it feels forced and false. And, frankly, this award-winning play's dialogue doesn't help: The argument, screams Howie, really isn't about an accidentally erased video. In fact, "It's not about the video!" he tells her, and us. Yeah, no kidding.

Of course, the often poetic and symbol-laden language of the stage doesn't easily translate to the more naturalistic rhythms of film. Take a Eugene O'Neill or Edward Albee play, where you really don't want to touch the words, and you can hear and even feel how stylized the language is. Rabbit Hole jumps back and forth between stagey and natural tones, and never feels comfortably committed to either.

Sandra Oh has a thankless role as a stoic woman in the grief group whose sole function is to let Howie be tempted to cheat and then nobly decide not to. Tammy Blanchard and Giancarlo Esposito offer some liveliness as Becca's wild-girl sister and the older musician boyfriend Becca has stolen away from another woman. Dianne Wiest, as Becca’s widowed mother, who had lost her own adult child, is sometimes affecting, sometimes affected.

Director John Cameron Mitchell—who has spoken openly in The New York Times and elsewhere about having lost his own four-year-old brother when he was 14—admirably respects the material enough to not make it exploitative or sensationalistic. Maybe he went too far the other way. Coming out of theatre himself, and having cinematically adapted his own off-Broadway musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Mitchell would seem to have had the background to make Rabbit Hole transition well to the screen. But a raucous musical, with all guns blazing, can keep its artificiality simply by nature of being a musical. Artificiality does not well serve, however, a movie about suppressed primal emotion. We don't want fireworks, but we do want a lit fuse.