The moment I found out I was going to become a father was divided into two distinct halves; the instant joy of anticipating parenthood and, much deeper inside of me, in a place that still feels rather uncomfortable to talk about, a creeping sense of dread and paranoia. In the almost three years since I received the news, both feelings continue to coexist and thrive. There is the daily joy of watching my son grow up and the incredible fear that, in an instant, something terrible could happen, that somehow, I would would be powerless to stop him being hurt (or worse), that a moment’s inattention could lead to losing him. When we cross the street, I carry him tight, staring down cars waiting to turn into the crosswalk, keeping my senses about me, focused. On the playground, I stalk the perimeter of the monkey bars, hands out of my pockets, raised in the air as if in some sort of lamentation, ready to catch him at the slightest hint of a slip.
Last year, while I was working in Florida, I received a phone call from my wife telling me that my son, while under the supervision of our babysitter, had tripped on a marble staircase in a nearby park and hit his mouth on the lip of the stair. Powerless and hundreds of miles away, I flew into a panic when I realized she was calling from the hospital; he would be fine, she said, kids get hurt. It is what happens. But the fear that my not being there had allowed him to get injured was hard for me to accept. What if I had been there? He could easily be hurt or worse on my watch. It is a very difficult tightrope to navigate between allowing your child the space to grow and make mistakes and wanting to make sure they never, ever experience suffering and pain.
It is something most parents don’t even talk about, as if saying the unthinkable might actually invoke it into being. But any parent who claims to have never thought or dreamt of the worst possible thing in the world, the death of their child, is not telling the truth; that nightmare hovers at the edges of the mind of every parent alive. It is not a fantasy, it is not something necessarily vivid and precise, but it functions as an anxious driver from within that forces attention and focus, that clamps onto your spinal column when you hear your child crying out in the night, makes you spin your head on a swivel when you hear an anonymous cry in the street; is that my child? Is he okay? The instinct thrives within all of us, a primal feeling of dread that makes possible all sorts of action lying otherwise dormant inside of us. The death of my child is, quite literally, my worst fucking nightmare and one that never, ever goes away.
It is also an ancient narrative that still carries tremendous power, from Abraham at the sacrificial table to Medea (to name the first stories that come to mind) to a moment that is still burned in my mind from my own childhood, watching Dustin Hoffman running down the street to the hospital with Justin Henry in his arms in Kramer vs Kramer to films like In The Bedroom (fiction) or Beyond Hatred (non-fiction) which explore the aftermath of a child’s death through the experience of the grieving parents. It is a story with its own conventions and tropes which, in the wrong hands, can be turned into melodrama or worse, cliché. Which is why I was so thrilled by John Cameron Mitchell’s adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole; Mitchell’s film has the feeling of emotional honesty that is often so absent in films about grief. It allows itself to be at once funny and heartbreaking without ever falling into the trap of oppressive heaviness that can so often befall such difficult subject matter. Mitchell’s achievement, this delicate balance between gravity and levity, is a gift to the audience and a huge leap forward for the director in terms of his maturity as a visual storyteller; close-ups and faces have replaced the medium shots of Hedwig and Shortbus and the young filmmaker’s desire to bring energy to the music of Hedwig or the sexual frankness of Shortbus has been replaced by a faith in his actors to deliver the goods.
John Camerom Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole
Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt are both at their best as Becca and Howie Corbett, a married couple living eight months after the death of their young child. Kidman in particular has turned off the icy gravitas of her more serious roles and the flighty etherial quality of her comedic performances to find the center of a character that is more sympathetic and, well, real than anything she has done before. At the same time, Eckhardt removes the oily, arrogant machismo that has been a trademark of his roles since In The Company Of Men, portraying Howie as a sympathetic man who is allowed to grive without the usual hysterics of the repressed father. Both performances are incredibly balanced and focused on telling the truth in each scene, creating likable characters who feel and act like real people. This dedication to emotional truth is what drives the film forward, and Mitchell has to take tremendous credit for surrounding these performances with gorgeous, crystal clear photography and the same commitment to honesty; there is no intrusive score to draw lines under the couple’s grief, there is no staging that feels artificial to a long-married couple, there is no flash or showy editing, no phony juxtaposition of images or moments, no intense close-ups of, say, a hand clutching a photograph. Every shot is as focused as the performers; Rabbit Hole strips all of the manipulation away.
The best example of Mitchell’s precision I can think of is the scene when Howie returns home to find his wife gone; alone in their house, he comes upon his son’s room, now cleaned out of all of the boy’s toys. The actor lays down in the small bed (which has been stripped bare) and falls asleep; in other hands, we might see all of this in close-up, but Mitchell stays outside of the room, showing us Eckhardt asleep in the tiny bed, down in the bottom corner of the frame. It is a staunch refusal to exploit the character’s grief, allowing him privacy, keeping us outside of his feelings because, if we’re honest, there is no way to know what that moment must feel like. The distance allows us to imply a million things at once; the character’s isolation in his marriage, his longing for his son, his own time as a young boy, his exhaustion, his need to deal with his own grief on his own terms, and on and on. It is great and mature filmmaking that can only come from real feeling and experience.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s script, which he adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play, also does an incredible job of keeping the story focused on tangible, believable emotion instead of the usual narrative gamesmanship and pyrotechnics often associated with this type of story; too often, this narrative features either a “before-and-after” look at the life of a family torn apart or it plays the game of showing us ambiguously grieving adults who are only later revealed to be suffering from the loss of a child. Rabbit Hole refuses both, instead keeping a tight focus on a very specific moment in the process, a moment beyond the initial shock and the unbearable grief, a moment on the road to living with the reality of loss, when a smile is not impossible and the outside world is no longer unbearable. It is the road to reconciliation, travelled while knowing full well that life will never be fully reconciled and it provides a great frame for the story, which never hits a false note or exploits coincidence to manufacture convenient meaning. I can’t say enough good things about this story and I expect that audiences who dare to take on this subject matter will be relieved when they discover how effectively Rabbit Hole allows them to feel unthinkable things without a moment of voyeuristic guilt. In other hands, I have no idea how this film may have turned out, but everyone here is on the same page, bringing a nightmare into the light, showing us the reasonable nature of our own fears by making them absolutely human, honoring the unspeakable by refusing to manipulate us into an approximation of the character’s suffering. Rabbit Hole allows us our nightmares which, after all, no film could ever replicate; it’s nice to have them left alone.