Don't go down this Rabbit Hole unless you wish to see a superb film that treats a sad topic with unflinching honesty. Don't go down this Rabbit Hole unless you believe that tragedy's grief, when transmuted through art's protective lens, can feel liberating, even joyful in its painful truths.
And don't go down unless you've harboured, if only fleetingly, the heretical notion that God can be a sadistic bully and Santa a jolly despot. Otherwise, fall freely down and watch what wells up.
For a parent, the tragedy at issue is the worst imaginable - to be predeceased by your child. Here's what we don't see on camera but soon know: Eight months ago, in a happy suburban home, the family dog darted out of the front yard and a young boy followed - right into the path of an oncoming car.
By every objective assessment, the fatality was an "accident," but that weak word has, in this context, potent ramifications. It just means that no one is to blame but everyone feels guilty. In the aftermath of such a death, the emotional debris is permanent - grief and guilt are glass shards that time will never sweep away.
Our first sight of Becca, the bereft mother, is in her garden. Detached, deliberate, she's planting flowers, in pale imitation of that other, more profound nurturing. Here and throughout, Nicole Kidman plays her with a brittleness, hard yet fragile, that sometimes erupts into anger or caustic wit, but that always keeps her at a remove from the world, as if her private nightmare is an enclosing reality separate from the public life that goes so blithely on around her.
Still, she functions, she endures, as does the relationship with her husband Howie (an equally impressive Aaron Eckhart). Theirs is clearly a solid marriage, with abundant sensitivity on each side, and yet, within it, a vast shared love has been lost, gone irrevocably. How can mere romantic love possibly fill that vacuum? The answer is short: It can't. So, in an effort to cope, both parents have plunged down different rabbit holes, into "parallel universes" of their own devising. The rest of the film tracks them on their distinct journeys, deep into dark places where, just possibly, parallel lines might intersect.
In Howie's realm, familiarity is a solace, and he clings to his son's memory in the drawings on the fridge door, in the video obsessively replayed on his cellphone, in the house itself, even in the blameless dog. But in Becca's universe, his source of comfort is her circle of hell: Give the clothes away, ship the toys out, let them be as far off as their owner.
Nor does she, unlike him, have any patience for the "professional wallowers" in group therapy, especially those who treat their grief with the balm of religion. When a fellow sufferer asserts, "God needed another angel," Becca snaps back coldly, "Then why didn't He just make one?" Heaven too is a parallel universe, but it's definitely not on her itinerary of belief.
Inevitably, husband and wife drift into secrets kept from each other - he into a potential liaison with another woman (Sandra Oh), she into furtive meetings with the teenage driver of that fatal car (Miles Teller). As they do, director John Cameron Mitchell and writer David Lindsay-Abaire, adapting his own stage play, team together deftly to "open up" the piece for the screen. There, it looks organically at home, especially through a succession of two-person scenes whose raw candour fuels the film's escalating drama: Becca with the teenager who nurses his own guilt; Becca with her maladroit but well-meaning mother (Dianne Wiest); and, climactically, Becca with Howie, their mutual sympathy shattered in an outburst of verbal violence, punctuated by a deadly calm, with nothing left to be said. Only in that terrible silence do they really communicate. Only then do their parallel paths intersect, but just to compound one tragedy with another.
Around them, of course, the world spins and renews itself, no more so than when Becca's fun-loving sister breezily announces that she's pregnant. But that cruel parallelism seems a bit forced, one of the few false notes in an otherwise affecting symphony. However, it's quickly redeemed by a remarkable sequence when grief's big question is posed - "Does it ever go away?" - and meets with this unvarnished reply: "No. But it changes, the weight of it. It turns into something you can carry around, like a brick in your pocket. It's what you've got, instead of your son." That's an astonishing insight: Grief morphs from an awful burden to a familiar companion, and that very familiarity becomes its own form of solace.
Astonishing too, and just as moving, is the symphony's coda when, for the first time, the idea of moving ahead is tentatively embraced. Mitchell shows the future as a flash-forward, but it's narrated in voiceover in the present. So today is speculating about tomorrow, with another big question - "And then what?" - meeting with another unvarnished reply: "I don't know. Something, though." Those who are happy today cling to the predictability of tomorrow; those who aren't cling even harder to that unknown little "something" - it's their everything.
- Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
- Written by David Lindsay-Abaire
- Starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart
- Classification: 14A