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What does grief look like? What does life become, when overshadowed by death? Rabbit Hole explores these difficult questions with a stunning poignancy few films achieve. The beauty of the filmmaking and story is unfortunately sullied by offensive language and drug use, but, on the flip-side, several positive messages—including a much-needed emphasis on marital fidelity—also emerge. Though not as steeped in depressing emotion as I had feared, Rabbit Hole is not the ticket for mindless, light entertainment, nor does it succeed in offering the glimmer of hope it attempts to create. Rather, the film’s commitment to stark realism results in a compelling and ultimately heartbreaking look at the difficulties and hopelessness of facing tragedy without God.
Many films have taken on the issue of a family’s response to calamity, but few have had the level of artistry and realistic depth that director John Cameron Mitchell brings to Rabbit Hole. When the film begins, it is evident that something in the life of married couple Becca and Howie isn’t right. Fairly soon, we gather that Becca and Howie are suffering the loss of their son, though we don’t discover the tragic details until later in the film.
Showing obvious talent for storytelling, Mitchell provides such information slowly, clue by clue, thereby adding mystery to a tale that could otherwise become too plodding. The building effect of this technique also results in emotional bombs that are strategically dropped at prime moments. Though the hand of a visionary artist is clearly present in this film, there is an extraordinary absence of narrative intrusion. Instead, it is as if all artificiality is stripped away, and we are left with an unadulterated look into this couple’s struggle to find meaning after the death of their son.
Their search unfortunately leads Becca and Howie in a negative direction for most of the story, which results in the film’s more damaging content. For starters, Becca becomes so consumed by her grief that it culminates into rage, and she lashes out at everyone around her. Members of the grief support group Becca briefly attends and her family get the brunt of her anger, but she also turns it on God. While saying she doesn’t believe in God, Becca still entertains the idea enough to resent Him a great deal, deciding that if He exists, He must be cruel and selfish. Becca’s words for God are much harsher than those, however, as her frustration boils over into several obscenities aimed at Him.
Becca’s mother, Nat, is disturbed that her daughter rejects God, claiming that she took her two daughters to church regularly when they were young. Having experienced the loss of a son herself, Nat also defends the idea of God as “comforting” during times of grief. As the story continues, however, we see that Nat has no real faith or understanding of God herself. To her credit, Nat is unfailingly supportive of her daughters, Becca and Izzy, and lovingly puts up with a great deal of criticism from them both. Yet, her advice and efforts to help are missing a credible foundation that, if there, might give her the wisdom her daughters need to hear and see. Instead, Becca continually pushes Nat and the rest of her family away, even as she keeps desperately seeking any comfort they might give her.
Becca’s complicated relationships include a dysfunctional one with her sister, Izzy, and the marital relationship with Howie that is the central focus of the film. Again, this relationship is realistically conveyed in all its love, angst, and pain. Becca and Howie react differently to their loss and, as a result, their marriage starts to decay, turning into a broiling mess of misdirected resentment, inhibited emotion, and lack of communication.
Instead of sharing in their grief, the two grow further and further apart as the story progresses. As Becca tries to independently find healing, Howie is also searching for answers in a different direction. Howie seems the more stable member of this couple, but, as the film progresses, we discover that Howie has not dealt with his grief any better than Becca. Like his wife, Howie looks for hope where it can’t be found and flounders helplessly when his crutches are pulled away.
Howie finds one particularly harmful crutch when he catches Gaby, a woman in the support group whose husband leaves her, smoking pot in her car. She is embarrassed, but not ashamed, and the event is treated lightly, as Howie proceeds to join her. This incident is followed by repeated evenings of Howie and Gaby smoking pot in her car, rather than attending the support group meetings. Howie’s interactions with Gaby, which he jokingly, but very accurately, suggests are a bad influence on him, develop into a much-needed friendship.
At a time when Howie is rejected by his wife, his relationship with Gaby inevitably builds to the point at which Howie sets up a meeting at Gaby’s house that would mark the beginning of an affair. [SPOILER WARNING] in a surprisingly positive twist, Howie thinks of his love for Becca and turns back from the near tryst, returning home where he desperately searches for his absent wife, fearing that she has left him. This turning point for Howie, as he comes face-to-face with what he was driven to do and remembers what he holds most dear, marks the beginning of his healing. The pivotal moment is also a capstone on the affirmation of marriage that is, overall, communicated in this film.
Even when at their lowest points, Howie and Becca demonstrate an underlying love, as well as an honest desire for each other’s healing and happiness. Tearing each other apart and barely knowing how to keep living, they still want to stay together and try their best to do so. Separation or divorce doesn’t even seem to have been a consideration in either of their minds until Howie’s encounter with Gaby and her husband who leaves. This core level of unconditional love echoes the loyal concern that is also present in Becca’s family relationships, as dysfunctional and unhappy as they are. Unfortunately, the love in all these relationships is at a very basic level, one that means the people may stay together, but they usually don’t exercise a deeper, selfless love that would allow them to truly comfort, rather than continually hurt each other.
[SPOILER WARNING] Unexpectedly, Becca is far more loving and kind to a person outside her family—Jason, the teenage boy who accidentally killed her son. When Becca doesn’t want to talk to anyone else about her son’s death, she accidentally bumps into Jason and then proceeds to meet with him on a regular basis. In a film filled with profound and phenomenally authentic acting performances, these scenes between Becca and Jason are the highlights, showcasing standout performances by Oscar winner Nicole Kidman and newcomer Miles Teller. During the characters’ conversations, Becca extends forgiveness and compassionate love to her son’s unintentional killer, making the meetings therapeutic for both Becca and Jason.
It is also in these meetings that Becca encounters what seems to be her turning point to healing, when Jason introduces her to the idea of parallel universes. This premise that Becca could be somewhere else at that same moment, living a happy life, is enormously comforting to her. Jason says the concept is quite possible, “if you believe in science.” While it is unusually astute and honest to acknowledge that science can become like a religion to some, it is interesting to note that Becca would rather embrace a wild belief in parallel universes than a belief in God.
The start of healing for Becca and Howie, then, is primarily enabled by a recognition of love for each other and the possibility of an alternate reality that would mean their pain is not all that exists. This blend of good and bad seems to be the hallmark of Rabbit Hole, as much of the film’s content fits this pattern. For example, Becca’s sister, Izzy, becomes pregnant out of wedlock, introducing a slew of complicated issues into the story. On the positive side, abortion is not considered an option, and both Becca and her mother are extremely supportive of Izzy’s pregnancy. However, there is never any discussion of the fact that this baby has been conceived outside of marriage. With another blend of good and bad, the baby’s father is apparently going to stick around with Izzy and the child, but, as a result, he and Izzy live together at Nat’s house.
With such moral and emotional confusion, it is no surprise that the filmmakers’ attempt to end the movie with a note of hopefulness falls flat, resulting in a final fade-out that is more profoundly bleak than the beginning. There is evidence at the close of the film that Becca and Howie are starting to mend and that, at the very least, they will try to heal together. Yet, this couple is clearly still not equipped to handle any future trials that lay ahead. The supposedly hopeful message for dealing with tragedy that Becca and Howie learn is essentially to go on living, putting one foot in front of the other with no reason for doing so. The discerning viewer will easily recognize that this is no hope at all and something that most people already see as their only option.
Becca and Howie, like many people in real life, reject God and thereby reject hope and the only legitimate reason there is to keep going. Thus, though the filmmakers assumedly meant the ending to be hopeful, it is instead a vision of a tragedy far worse than the death of a young child. In the end, despite the breathtaking artistry and brilliant acting of Rabbit Hole, the only potential value that remains in watching this film is to remind us of where and what we would be if not for God.
Check out these movies instead:
Crossroads: A Story of Forgiveness (Hallmark Hall of Fame, 2007)
Bella (Metanoia Films, 2006)
Flame On (American Family Media, 2011)