Perhaps there is no more painful experience here on earth than a parent being forced to cope with the loss of a young child. In the new film, Rabbit Hole, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart portray Becca and Howie, an upper middle-class couple coming to grips with the death of their son, who was struck by a car eight months ago while chasing the family dog into the street.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay Abaire, Rabbit Hole is a powerful and at-times difficult drama to watch. Becca and her husband Howie, while both grieving the loss of their son, express their pain in starkly contrasting ways. Becca is consumed by her own grief, which isolates her from her sister, who confides that she is pregnant, and her mother, who is still coming to grips with the death of her son years earlier. On the other hand, Howie finds solace in counseling sessions with other couples who have lost children and a woman he befriends, whose husband leaves her. Howie has tried to resume a normal life, but his pain is no less severe.
Nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, Nicole Kidman captures the essence of a woman enveloped by an overwhelming grief that distances her from her husband with each passing day. Her character’s grief is manifested in the low level of intimacy she extends to her husband, who is starving for her affection. Although the couple exchanges simple pleasantries each day, there is much that has been unspoken since the loss of their child. Becca and Howie’s marriage is on the brink of ill-repair, and the fleeting moments of temptation for Howie are a reminder of how an unspeakable tragedy can move any human to a state of complete vulnerability.
Rabbit Hole is exceptional in how it observes not only the behavior of its two main characters but in how it displays the emotions of those with whom the major characters interact. Lindsay Abaire, who adapted his play for the screen, deserves recognition for the way he has incorporated small elements of humor in an otherwise somber and solemn story. American dramedies are often developed with an almost-rhythmic series of dramatic scenes that are followed by a comedic moment, and Rabbit Hole is distinctive for the way it has avoided such contrivances.
Audiences should admire Rabbit Hole for the way it depicts and explores grief. Although there are ways to counsel and minister to those who are grieving, the film reminds us that individuals cope with loss and grief in their own way and in their own time. And the film’s powerful scenes with Becca and her mother remind us how much a mistake it may be to assume otherwise.
When Becca’s mother suggests that the church might be as helpful to Becca in coping with the death of her son as it was to her, Becca vehemently nixes the thought. But despite her dismissal of the church, Becca shows an uncommon level of curiosity, grace, and forgiveness when she begins regularly meeting with Jason, the teenager who accidentally killed her son. Becca shares with Jason thoughts and feelings that she cannot share with Howie or anyone else in her life. And it is through this relationship that Becca ultimately summons the strength she needs to cope with her grief.
Becca’s display of grace and forgiveness is surprising and moving. Her actions compel Christians to think about the number of other people in the world who do not know the power of the church community to help individuals cope with loss and grief. One may also wonder about the alternative sources of community and support that spiritual but not religious and even completely unchurched people seek in difficult times.
It is likely and understandable that Becca is angry at God, not only for the untimely death of her son but for the death of her younger brother. But Becca may very well be angry at the church too. Becca’s mother, who tells her that the church helped her when her son died, is beside herself when Becca refuses to acknowledge the church as a possible source of comfort and community even though she raised Becca as a Christian. Some audience members may question how such a person could inhabit the incredible forgiveness and grace she extends to Jason while showing such disdain for the church.
Many people, even Christians, ask where God is in the midst of a tragedy such as the one Becca and Howie face. Such a question is inevitable after tragic events and yet it is among the most difficult questions for anyone to answer. Our faith suggests that perhaps the question is not framed as constructively as it might be. Perhaps we should not look for God in the midst of tragedy and disaster, but instead seek God’s healing presence in our responses to such tragedies. For in the aftermath of this couple’s tragedy and many others, faith, love, and hope emerge, the love of Christ is spread for all to see, and the true power and enduring presence of God is revealed. May it be so.
Rabbit Hole is PG-13 and stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart. It is directed by John Cameron Mitchell. The movie is playing in select theaters.
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