Rabbit Hole is an almost shockingly conventional film when considering it was directed by John Cameron Mitchell, whose previous two films were 2001's Hedwig and the Angry Inch (about a transsexual rock singer who suffered a boxed sex change operation) and 2006's Shortbus (which depicted real sex acts). This time, the movie is much simpler in both theme and execution, as it's about a married couple continuing to grapple with the reality of their lives and relationship eight months after the death of their child.
The real surprise is that Mitchell turns out to be very well suited to the material, and reveals himself to be a versatile director. He needs not to be working on something shocking or outlandish to produce something nuanced and memorable, with a piercing impact.
The married couple in question are Becca and Howie, played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, both at the top of their form, if a little less relatable given their movie-star attractiveness. (Had this been a British film, by Mike Leigh for example, all the actors would look like everyday people.) This element is somewhat leavened by the casting of supporting roles, both Tammy Blanchard as Becca's sister Izzy, and the always-lovely Diane Wiest as their mother. Neither are particularly unattractive, but they have a better time fitting into regular-person skins.
Then there's newcomer Miles Teller as Jason, the neighborhood teenager Becca begins to follow around. I won't say here what Becca's motives are, but suffice it to say that Teller has a role of great emotional depth to work with and he is up to the challenge.
Pretty much all of Rabbit Hole, which is adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, focuses exclusively on Becca and Howie's struggle to move on to a normal life in the months after their son's death. Although John Cameron Mitchell wrote both of his previous films, in this case the script is adapted by Lindsay-Abaire himself, and rightfully so; it is exceptionally well adapted. All too often a film is transparently adapted from a play, with its over-focus on dialogue and unnaturally small number of set changes. Although Rabbit Hole is still driven by dialogue, it always feels like a skillfully assembled film rather than as like a filmed play. This due not just to the script but its seamless interaction with the performances, the editing, and original music by Anton Sanko.
There is a particular mood to Rabbit Hole, and it's not always quite as somber as you might think. There is catharsis in laughter through grief, and humor is sprinkled throughout. Much of it occurs in the context of the group grief counseling Becca and Howie go to, along with the subsequent friendship there that develops between Howie and Gaby (Sandra Oh).
This is a very worthy film, but somewhat difficult to recommend to anyone but hardcore movie fans. You spend much of its time feeling horrified at the thought of ever being in the same position as these characters. But the characters lend a level of humanity to their situations, and even as they make some terrible mistakes informed by their grief, they are treated, particularly by Mitchell, with compassion and dignity.
Rabbit Hole could easily be called a tearjerker, but perhaps its best quality is that it's not a emotionally manipulative. Its purpose is to tell a compelling story, not simply to make you cry. It's a story that not a lot of people will necessarily want to endure, but those who do will find themselves pleasantly surprised by its tender handling of a tragic scenario.