With his piercing, well-wrought and superbly acted 2001 film, In The Bedroom, Todd Field (in his directorial debut) delivered a remarkably observed examination on loss, despair and the intractable pain that readily accompanies grief. At the centre is Matt and Ruth Fowler (Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek in astounding turns), an aging couple unraveling in the wake of their young son’s murder at the hands of the estranged husband of the woman (Marisa Tomei) with whom he was having an affair.
Weaving together elements of bitterness, bereavement and vengeance, In The Bedroom wondrously illuminated the potential for unbearable grief – moreso, death – to both fracture relationships and lace mourners ever closer together. After the death of a child, does the pain ever truly go away?
Nearly a decade later, that question lingers at the core of the emotionally shattering Rabbit Hole, John Cameron Mitchell’s vivid and telling adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning drama that unremittingly tackles themes that reeled in viewers of In The Bedroom. The grief-stricken parents here are Howie and Becca Corbett (the outstanding pair of Aaron Eckhart and Nicole Kidman) who, eight months later, are struggling to come to terms with the vehicular death of their four-year-old son at the hands of a teenage driver. Like the Fowlers, the Corbetts are desperately searching for a return to normalcy after the loss of their child, wading through grief, anger and pain.
To aid in their quest for reason and sanity as they sort through their feelings, particularly the resentment that quietly festers beneath the façade of ordinariness, the Corbetts join a support group peopled by other parents (including Sandra Oh) who’ve lost children. But that does little to douse the raging flames that burn within Becca, in particular. At her family home, she bonds with her mother (a remarkable Dianne Wiest) over the mutual sentiment of losing a child, and at one point attempts to pass on some of her dead son’s things to her sister’s son.
When the sister declines, Becca offers them to a local charity organisation. In what can be construed as a peculiar attempt to heal her broken heart, she takes to stalking her son’s killer and forges a relationship with him, including quiet park-bench conversations and an invitation to her home, which confounds and pisses off her husband whom, meanwhile, strikes up a friendship with Sandra Oh’s understanding soul, who lends a listening ear.
The film’s jump-ahead storytelling and deliberate pacing force the audience to remain transfixed and fit the narrative pieces together so as to fully grasp the complete story at the heart of Lindsay-Abaire’s fine script. Though this can be additionally complicating for some viewers, the convincing lead performances make it worth the extra effort.
Kidman, up for an armful of awards this season, offers her best work since she donned a fake nose and a British accent for Virginia Woolf in The Hours, which secured her a Best Actress Academy Award. She shares palpable chemistry with Eckhart, who turns in an impressively nuanced performance marked by spurts of raw emotion and restraint.
Much like the film’s title, grief has the potential to drag us down a dark and winding tunnel, where we can either choose to remain or muster up the strength to pick up the pieces and move on. It can be a painful yet empowering experience, much like Rabbit Hole itself, which offers a powerful and affecting, emotional and absorbing, family portrait.