At the intersection of sorrow and rage

By Matt Hurwitz
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, December 19, 2010; E03

There's no way around it. We all eventually lose somebody. We are going to grieve. And some of us are better at it than others.

In "Rabbit Hole," opening on Christmas Day, Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) Corbett have suffered a tragedy. Eight months earlier, their 4-year-old son, Danny, dashed into the street after the family dog and was killed by a car driven by a teenager.

Most movies about grief start with the tragedy and go from there. "Rabbit Hole" picks up months down the road, when friends have stopped coming by. Grief goes on nonetheless. "They're both in very different places," Kidman said in a recent telephone interview. "Every person has a different path."

Kidman, who also produced the film through her own Blossom Films, had stumbled upon a review of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire four years ago, while having coffee with her husband, Keith Urban, one morning at a Nashville Starbucks.

"It sounded so poignant," she said. "They just said it was so real and authentic. And they're the sort of stories that I'm drawn to."

She immediately inquired about it, and found its film rights had not been acquired. The actress had done one film, "Birth," which dealt with loss and grief, a few years prior. "I still felt there was a lot of uncharted territory for me, in terms of grief," she said. "There's so few films that deal with this subject matter with such ferocious delicacy."

The subject also appealed to director John Cameron Mitchell. "I lost my 4-year-old brother when I was 14," Mitchell said. "He had a heart problem from birth, but it was still a surprise. It's colored all of our lives forever. So I think I had some unfinished business about that."

The director cried when he read the script. "It's not that I felt I wanted to do this movie, but that I had to do it," he said.

Shooting the film in New York City on a budget of only $5 million, the production staff found a house in Douglaston, a suburban neighborhood on the edge of Queens, to be the home base for the actors and crew for six weeks. "John actually lived there the whole time," Kidman said. Both she and Eckhart spent time together there with Mitchell and the other actors (including Dianne Wiest, who plays Becca's mother, Nat), exploring their characters.

"When you're playing a married couple, you've got to spend time together," Kidman said. "It was a lot of talking, eating meals together. With this kind of movie, that's really the rehearsal process - to create a comfort."

"Nicole and I were never more than 10 feet away from each other," Eckhart added. The crew also became part of the family, always aware of what was going on with the actors. "They knew when there was going to be a lot of yelling and crying that day," he said.

Howie attends a grief recovery group with other couples; Becca begrudgingly goes, but eventually bows out, preferring, to her husband's chagrin, to make vain attempts at moving on with life without Danny - which her psyche, unfortunately, isn't quite ready to permit.

"She's taking Danny's paintings down off the fridge, she's trying to give his clothes to her pregnant sister," Kidman explained. "She's constantly trying to move forward and choose life."

The problem is, Becca is trying to move the grief process forward faster than it wants to go. And Howie finds himself deeply resentful at his wife's attempts to "move on."

"That's where the divergence comes," Eckhart explained. "Because Howie is much more willing to explore, with group therapy, etc., and she is unwilling to. He's turning the corner, where he's starting to say, 'Becca, you gotta speed up, because I'm passing you up.' And that's not good."

The two wind up at odds with each other, sporadically blasting out the stress that builds between them in highly charged scenes. Those sequences, Mitchell said, are carefully spread through the film. "Otherwise, you'll wear the audience out," he said. "Real life is a lot messier."

On set, Kidman and Eckhart found the charge building naturally, leading up to the filming of those scenes. "You have actual feelings in the character," Eckhart said, "and you say, 'I want to yell at her right now.' I'm sitting there having to restrain myself, as an actor, and asking John, 'How come I can't yell at her?' "

But when the time comes, it's the natural release he and Howie - and the audience - need. "All those days of not being able to yell at her, not being able to release this monster that is inside of me - on those days that you get to release the monster, he's ready to come out. And it feels really good. You want to say it - and you want to see her listen to it. And I want to hear her response to it. And, as an actor, having Nicole there, who knows what she's doing, has prepared, and just gives it right back - it's very exciting."

Kidman agrees: "The emotions are epic." Despite her attempts to be "normal," Becca's own emotional outbursts come whether she likes them or not, with blasts at everyone from her husband and mother to a stranger at the supermarket.

"She censors herself, and then she's uncensored," Kidman said. "Then she's trying to pull herself in line again, then exploding, because the turmoil inside her is enormous. And eight months down the road, patience is wearing thin with people. Even though they still feel for you, other people have all moved on. So it's an incredibly lonely place."

The one place Becca does find solace is in a friendship she strikes up with the oddest of people: Jason (newcomer Miles Teller), the young driver of the car that killed her son.

"She can't bear to be in the presence of anyone but the person who caused all of this," Mitchell said. "And it's beautiful. They don't know where they are or what they're doing together. They just know they need to be together. He's got to get absolution, and she's gotta give it. She becomes healed by healing him."

Adds Kidman: "She's in such confusion and chaos in her head, but there's somebody there that somehow links her to Danny. She's trying to replicate her son in this teenage boy, and somehow trying to understand everything through him."

Howie, meanwhile, has tired of waiting for his wife to find her way through the muck back to him, longing for someone who can understand his own path through the process. "I talked to a lot of people about this in prep for the film," Eckhart said. "A large percentage of marriages don't survive a tragedy like this."

Adds Mitchell, "The audience will understand that they are both absolutely right, and they are both completely wrong, in their approach to the situation."

Ultimately, it is up to Becca and Howie to figure out whether they will continue on as a couple and begin life anew.

Hurwitz is a freelance writer.

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