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Rabbit Hole

Rabbit Hole is a tough sell. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, not a hit video game or comic book.

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Rabbit Hole

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

Opens Jan. 14

Rabbit Hole is a tough sell. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, not a hit video game or comic book. The two leads—Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart—are better known as actors, not stars who get asses in seats. And the subject matter—a middle-class couple mourning the loss of their 4-year-old son—will most likely turn off a huge segment of moviegoers.

Still, as sensitively directed by John Cameron Mitchell in a break from outre, self-penned material such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, Rabbit Hole is precisely the type of movie you should be seeing. Its utter lack of sensationalism is what makes it so refreshing, profound even.

David Lindsay-Abaire’s 2006 Broadway play was an extended fugue about grief done in the style of a modern chamber piece. While some of that intimacy is inevitably lost in the translation to screen—closeups lessen, rather than intensify, the bruising impact of Lindsay-Abaire’s eloquent, naturalistic dialogue—enough remains to give the movie an almost hushed stillness that is the very antithesis of most contemporary American movies, where mindless sensation rules.

Kidman and Eckhart play Becca and Howie, a late-thirtysomething married couple living a seemingly ordinary yupscale existence in a New York City bedroom community. But telltale signs indicate that something is amiss. There are children’s drawings on the refrigerator but no kid in sight. A bedroom sits curiously vacant.

As it turns out, Becca and Howie are still reeling from the accidental death of their son Danny eight months earlier. Neither is quite certain how to move on. Do they strip the house of all remaining vestiges of Danny, including those refrigerator drawings? Or would it be more compassionate to let his spirit continue to dwell with them, even if it’s simply by refusing to clear out his old room?

Group therapy sessions with other grieving parents don’t dull the pain. Becca’s mother Nat (Diane Wiest) and kid sister Izzy (Tammy Blanchard) are less helpful than intrusive. Neighbors and co-workers tiptoe around their unspeakable void, which just makes things worse. “Things aren’t nice anymore,” Becca finally blurts out to Howie in a rare moment of candor.

Lindsay-Abaire adapted his play for the movie and intelligently opens it up for the new demands. Characters alluded to onstage become corporeal presences; settings that were only discussed previously—Becca and Howie’s therapy sessions and a neighborhood park—are now visible elements.

Mitchell elicits superbly empathetic performances from his lead actors—both Kidman and Eckhart are at the top of their game here—without pushing either into teary bathos. Because of the necessary script deletions and restructuring, Nat and Izzy make less vivid impressions than they did on Broadway, but Wiest and especially Blanchard make every second of screen time count. If Rabbit Hole is ultimately less moving onscreen than it was as a play, it still remains a terrific actor’s showcase. Anyone who values great acting can’t afford to miss it.

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