David Lindsay-Abaire may have come up with the perfect exchange for two parents arguing over the grief of losing a child.
"I was just trying to make things nice."
"You can't. You just can't. Things aren't nice anymore."
In "Rabbit Hole," a husband and wife are eight months into the emptier lives they now lead after losing their son. And things aren't "nice" anymore, and possibly never will be nice again.
It's a "Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars" movie. Becca, played by Nicole Kidman in a surprisingly full-blooded, brittle and fuming performance, is a woman deep in the rabbit hole of grief and in denial about it. She can't or won't let go of her emotions and, as the cliche goes, "get it all out." She is moving on but shutting down.
Howie (Aaron Eckhart, very good in a turn pitched as a practical, more emotional counterpoint) is the one trying to fix things, to get them to support group meetings. He seems further along in the process, but is he? Maybe he's just starting to resent the distance that's come between them, emotional and sexual.
"It's been eight months."
"Oh? So who's keeping track?"
"I'm keeping track."
Becca gardens with a manic intensity, throwing herself into their beautiful waterfront home, impulsively removing traces of their son from their life. And nobody -- not Howie, not Becca's dizzy, working-class mom (Diane Wiest, in another stunning characterization), not the folks they meet in the parents' group (including Sandra Oh) -- can snap her out of it.
Kidman sparkles in scene after withering scene, rolling her eyes and then exploding at other grieving parents for going on and on about how "God must've needed another angel" as a way of coping with their loss. Becca's story arc will take her back to the source of their loss.
Eckhart's Howie treads a more dangerous path. He starts going to support group meetings by himself, and his vulnerability and a liberal application of pot set him up for an affair.
Meanwhile, things at home go from bad to worse as they re-debate the way their child died, accuse one another of not grieving enough and deliver jolting details of what a parent faces every day in a house that their child once lived in. When Kidman, voice cracking, assures Howie that she sees the boy's fingerprints on a doorway, we get it and wonder how anybody moves on from that sort of loss.
Lindsay-Abaire, who adapted his play for this surprisingly tender film from the director of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," John Cameron Mitchell, packs a lot of living, remembering, grieving and healing into 90-odd minutes. Characters -- Howie, Becca, Becca's mom and Oh as the too-long-in-group-therapy parent -- begin at one point to show us who they are, and then, out of nowhere, peel off a layer and become someone else.
That's the marvel of "Rabbit Hole," setting us up to judge and then upending those judgments. It's a long journey back, the movie suggests, and any means you use to get out of that hole is allowed.
That message, this script and these actors make "Rabbit Hole" one of the best films of the past year.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, Diane Wiest, Sandra Oh
DIRECTOR: John Cameron Mitchell
RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some drug use and language.
THE LOWDOWN: Life for a happy couple is turned upside down after their young son dies in an accident.