Saturday, May 14, 2011

Rabbit Hole -- responding to loss

Director: John Cameron Mitchell, 2010. (PG-13)

Rabbit Hole offers a low-budget look at the impact of loss and the responses to the consequent pain. Based on David Lindsay-Abbaire’s 2005 play, Lindsay-Abbaire adapts his own screenplay for Mitchell to direct. And the film feels like a play, being tight and restricted with few characters. The success of the film lies in the performances of the two leads, Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart, especially Kidman who was nominated for an Oscar here.

The film centers on Becca and Howie Corbett. Once a happily married couple, seven months earlier they lost their little boy, Danny, in a tragic accident. Now, they are dealing with fall-out of that event that, in an instant, redefined their lives and their relationship.

Becca (Nicole Kidman, Margot at the Wedding) was a successful executive but left her job to become a stay-at-home mom. Her life was defined by her child. Now she tries to find comfort and solace in well-meaning friends and family. Howie (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight) has turned to a support group, led by Gaby (Sandra Oh), for healing. Each, though, are struggling to accept and move on.

Director Mitchell draws upon personal experience to create this poignant and emotional movie. When he was 14 he lost his younger brother to a heart condition. He commented, “It was a sudden, unexpected event. It defined a family forever and recovering from it was something we’re still doing.”

Indeed, in the film Becca’s mother Nat (Dianne Wiest) has experienced similar loss, in the death of her son and Becca’s brother. Becca asks her, “Does it ever go away?” Her mom responds, “No, I don’t think it does. Not for me, it hasn’t – has gone on for eleven years. But it changes, though. . . . At some point it becomes bearable.” With her sister, Izzy (Tammy Blanchard, Bella), becoming pregnant, Becca is forced to confront the impending presence of a child and the absence of another.

Becca tries to deal with the loss by forming a friendship with Jason (Miles Teller), a teen who is crafting a comic book entitled “Rabbit Hole”. More than this, though, she is slowly clearing out all traces of Danny. Down come the fridge pictures. Out go his clothes and toys. She sends his dog away, to relatives. And she wants to move to a different home where “ghosts” are not present.

Here is one way to cope with loss. It is to hide or remove the past. She has given up on group therapy because it forces her to look at the loss and it further forces her to hear people who are turning to God. She wants neither. By running away from the pain of the past, we can seemingly learn to live once again in the present. But this pain remains, even if buried, and it will poison relationships, just as it was poisoning Becca’s marriage. Without intimate relations in seven months, Howie is feeling neglected and abandoned.

One issue with Becca’s approach is her stubborn refusal to look to God for refuge and comfort. Even when Nat tells her, “You know, Becca, when your brother died, I found the church very helpful,” Becca reacts, “I know you did, but that’s you. That’s not me.” And she goes on to badmouth God. Sadly, he is there and waits for Becca and us to come to him (Rev. 3:20). He offers comfort to the downhearted (Jer. 31:15). He understands our pain. For sure, the pat and clich├ęd response of the believing couple in group therapy, who suggest that their loss was God taking another angel to be with him, is both wrong and discomforting. But errant theology is no reason to abandon the true God. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psa. 34:8).

Howie tries to deal with the loss in a different way, by going to group therapy and forming a friendship with Gaby. As Becca pulls away from him, hiding her secrets behind a wall of silence, so he, too, hides his secrets from her. Neither can really hide the truth, though, which is that their pain is redefining them.

As Becca is discarding memories, Howie is reliving his. He spends hours watching old videos of Danny on his iPhone in the dark of night. He cannot move forward. He cannot let go. Neither have found the “happy medium” where life can go on while memories remain.

The title Rabbit Hole refers to the concept of alternate universes that may be present all around us. This is the theme of Jason’s comic book. Really, though, it seems this refers to the Corbetts. Both are living as though they have descended down Alice’s rabbit hole. They are living as though their son should be alive. Their present life seems to be in an alternate universe, one they are neither ready for, nor prepared to adjust to.

Too often life can be like that. An event occurs, and in an instant changes life for us forever. It redefines us even if we try to evade such redefinition. We may seek to live in the past, thinking the present life is the rabbit hole, the alternate reality we never wanted. But we must accept the past, embrace what has happened. To do otherwise is to live in the rabbit hole. Without seeming pat, it is true that God will use even tragic events to mold us into Christlikeness (Rom. 8:29). This oft-quoted and much maligned verse from Romans declares, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). We should not blame God, but we can look to him to use these events for our eventual good.

Will we choose to embrace reality’s heart or live in the rabbit hole? One will leave us stuck and bitter, damaging those around us. The other will bring healing, even though we are damaged. The choice is ours.

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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