What makes Rabbit Hole remarkable is the way it never does what you think it will do.
The story revolves around a couple whose son was killed in an auto accident. Eight months later, they've exhausted the wailing grief that most movies on the subject would dwell upon. An uneasy peace has settled into their home, but it is superficial comfort that viewers aren't goaded into recognizing.
Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) appear poised for a breakup — each begins an emotional affair of sorts — but Rabbit Hole isn't a movie relying on make-up-your-mind moments. This marriage is dissolving with temperamental silences; neither Becca nor Howie knows what to say, or what each could possibly hear that would make things better. But the two keep talking, making it worse.
Sounds depressing, although Rabbit Hole isn't, with David Lindsay-Abaire presenting a perceptive, subtly dark-humored adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Sidestepping the usual cliches, Lindsay-Abaire creates drama without villains, not Becca or Howie or even the teenager (Miles Teller) who didn't brake his car fast enough to keep their son alive. Everyone is damaged; nobody is wrong.
That such an emotionally nuanced film is directed by John Cameron Mitchell — notorious for the decadent romps Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus — is yet another surprise. Pristine suburbs and repressed feelings haven't been this rebellious filmmaker's forte. Yet Mitchell trusts Lindsay-Abaire's writing as much as his own, calming his cinematic exuberance to create an antitearjerker, which in itself is anarchic.
Becca and Howie don't have any tears left when Rabbit Hole begins. He's on the brink of accepting his son's death, with only Becca's insistent remembrances holding them both back. She keeps the boy's room as he left it, resisting Howie's invitation to join a grief therapy group. When she relents, Becca delivers a tart rebuke to the surrender heard from others. Howie may have no choice — or chance — but to leave her and start over again.
Tension increases after Becca crosses paths with the withdrawn teenager, Jason, who killed her child, recognizing someone who shares her grief and curiously following him. There's a section of Rabbit Hole when we're unsure why Becca is doing this; she's emotionally brittle enough to do something rash. But Jason may provide her closure, too late for Howie, who's finding a sympathetic ear from another therapy participant (Sandra Oh).
Kidman has rarely been better than she is here, expressing Becca's inner turmoil in perfectly calibrated glares, gestures and pauses. There's a passive-aggressiveness in this role that Kidman milks for both pathos and gallows amusement; she's as unpredictable as the material. Eckhart matches her with underplayed frustration, never crossing into self-pity. Even when Rabbit Hole turns on the gloom, watching these actors sink into their roles is a joy to observe.