Mother grieves best

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 23, 2010 - 2:20 PM

Nicole Kidman is powerful as a mother struggling after the death of her young son.

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Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole"

After the loss of their 4-year-old, Danny, in a random traffic accident, the secure, comfortable foundation Becca and Howie Corbett built their dreams on turns to pea gravel. To paraphrase John Lennon, death is what happens while you're making other plans.

The Corbetts' showplace home becomes a swamp of toxic emotions. Howie thinks the path out of grief might come through support-group sessions. Becca attends grudgingly, arms bitterly crossed. She has only contempt for "professional wallowers" who lie down and accept the cosmic injustice of a dead child. Becca is defiantly inconsolable. Her tamped-down rage is sad and awful and intimidating. One couple's faith that God took their child because "he needed another angel" sets her off like an explosive charge. "Why didn't he just make one?" she demands. "I mean, he's God after all!"

Filling her days with garden projects and baking, she has constructed a sanctuary of suppressed grief. Howie, who tries to use Al Green mood music and shoulder rubs to break the ice and rekindle their sex life, worries he's about to lose his marriage.

Nicole Kidman is strikingly good as Becca, infusing clipped dialogue and fleeting expressions with great depth of feeling. Becca examines every social interaction like a code-breaker, looking for secret messages intended to console and condescend, or to impatiently urge her to get over it. Her floozy sister Izzy's pregnancy strikes Becca as an insensitive rebuke to her suffering, indifferent life pressing ahead as she stands still. When their mother, Nat, reminisces about her own recovery from the son she lost, Becca is provoked. Arthur was a 30-year-old junkie, Danny was an innocent child. "He was still my son," Nat replies. There's hard-won wisdom in her response (and Dianne Wiest's benign smile), but Becca treats her like an unfeeling fool.

As Howie, Aaron Eckhart doesn't travel to the same emotional extremes. His grieving is done at a lower register. He secretly cherishes old cell-phone videos of Danny and wants to maintain his room as a shrine. He even keeps the kiddie seat buckled in the rear of their car; after all, they could have another child again soon, couldn't they? Unlike the repressed Becca, Howie strains to make contact with life, sadly fumbling his way toward friendship with another woman in their support group (the appealing Sandra Oh). Every step he makes is, from Becca's vantage point, the wrong step. As soon as he steps through the door he's in the hurt locker, and Eckhart's dispirited eyes show it.

"Rabbit Hole," adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, is often rough going, intentionally so. It covers rocky emotional terrain with bracing honesty as two smart, decent people with different temperaments and personalities try to recuperate from an unimaginable trauma. The film is directed by bad-boy provocateur John Cameron Mitchell (of the transgender musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" and the porn-infused comedy-drama "Shortbus") with wonderful maturity and sophistication. Tense and mournful as it is, the film also has moments of wild hilarity and a sense of hope.

A scarred young comic-book artist Becca meets theorizes that there are unseen portals all around us, leading to alternate dimensions where our lives work out differently. Therefore a happy life is just as valid a possibility as a wrecked one. Significantly, "Rabbit Hole" unfolds nine months after Danny's death; this is a story of a messy, painful, protracted cathartic rebirth. Ultimately you feel the question is not, Will they make it? It's: How will they make it?

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

  • RABBIT HOLE

    ★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Opens: Saturday.

    Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use, language.

    Theater: Uptown.

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