"Things aren't nice anymore", flatly declares Becca (Nicole Kidman) early in Rabbit Hole, and though she's describing the waking hell her life has been since her 4-year-old son was hit by a car and killed, she manages in that one phrase to sum up the movie as a whole: there is nothing at all nice in Rabbit Hole, which is, just to reiterate, about the parents of a 4-year-old boy who was hit by a car and killed.

Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer-winning play, the film picks up eight months after Becca and Howie (Aaron Eckhart) lost their son Danny. By the time we meet them, the couple has moved past disbelief and sorrow to settle comfortably in a slack depression that consumes every moment of their lives, and this is more or less the topic of the film over its 92 minutes: the mourning process of two adults with very different, even mutually exclusive, emotional needs. Half a portrait of grief, half a study of a marriage dissolving, it sounds like so much torturous miserabilism, the perfect way to ruin the holidays; and it's not not that, but it's also much, much more.

Chiefly, what makes it more is the quality of the performances in general, and Kidman in particular: as Rabbit Hole is one of the purest, deepest character studies produced in America this year, it only makes sense that all of the roles provide eminently combustive fodder for the actors brought on board, and not just the Kidman/Eckhart branch of the cast. There's also Izzy (Tammy Blanchard), Becca's irresponsible younger sister who has only lately discovered that she's pregnant (if any event can be said to "trigger" the particular segment of the couple's lives that we're privy to, it's when Becca learns of this pregnancy); Becca's soft-headed mother (Dianne Wiest), who also lost a son and whose advice is both unwanted and very much unwelcome; and Jason (Miles Teller), the cow-eyed teenager who hit Danny those many months ago, and has plainly gotten trapped in his own cycle of dead-end misery as a result; which we learn as a result of Becca's unexplained stalking of the teen (a plot development that has annoyed many reviewers; it never struck me as being particularly out of character for a woman so transparently desperate).

Lindsay-Abaire's script moves the action from stage to screen with invisible effort (I should admit to having never read the play nor seen it performed), placing events and conversations in a chain of locations that could not possibly be represented theatrically as it is here: Rabbit Hole shows no sign whatsoever of having been originally intended for any other medium than cinema. Except in the one thing: those loamy characters, frightfully dense and rich and archly grandiose even in their realism, in a manner far more in keeping with stage drama than movies. On the flipside, director John Cameron Mitchell keeps his actors firmly in check, causing them to give performances that are unmistakably movie-sized: very quiet, very tiny, very eager to exploit the lovingly lingering takes and tentative close-ups that Mitchell lavishes upon every character at one point or another.

In a uniformly solid cast, Kidman is the absolute stand-out, giving what is undoubtedly her finest performance since Birth, well over six years ago. Perhaps she does not put anything into the character that wasn't there on the page - though Becca is an abnormally dense character, and it doesn't necessarily speak ill of an actress to accuse of bringing nothing "new" to the role - but she is about as perfect as I can possibly imagine anyone being in the part of a woman so terrified that everything she feels is always negative and destructive that she does whatever she can to swallow down those emotions: it is at once both an icy performance and so thick with feeling and affect that just the sight of her eyes - those eternal Kidman eyes, crystal blue with the absent look of a hunted animal - and the weak set of her face, worn out by every moment, is enough to make one's breath catch. Not that her co-stars - Wiest and Teller in particular - do not give wonderfully felt performances, for they do. They just can't compete with Kidman's immaculately precise work: slow and inarticulate when Becca is trying to push through her wall of grief; raging - as terrifyingly enraged as anything I've seen in a movie of the last two or three years, anyway - in the rare moments when Becca's defenses comes down and she actually speaks what's on her mind.

The net effect of this acting, married with this scenario, is best summed up in the word "lacerating": too much so for its own good, maybe. Mitchell, after the bubbly, artificial, alienated worlds of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, has gone as far as possible to the other extreme, leaving Rabbit Hole so stripped-down, choosing only the most basic language with which to explore his characters - if not for the embalmed, glassy cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco (and I mean that in the best way, incidentally), I'd call it "punk". At any rate, it offers us no quarter and little room to escape: we are caught in the hushed rooms where these characters live and do not live their lives, sometimes feeling cramped and ghastly, sometimes open and light; it's not a very technically accomplished film, but this is the result of a careful and deliberate choice towards simplicity in service of the drama, and I must confess my great admiration for Mitchell's refusal to dress up the cruelty of the piece at all.

Still: live by the emotionally crushing drama, die by the emotionally crushing drama, and as much as Rabbit Hole is a staggering thing, it almost feels like a perfectly calculated machine to make us feel as bad as humanly possible, on the grounds that feeling bad = art, not that feeling bad = catharsis. There's nothing I can specifically point to in Lindsay-Abaire's script that rings false (some of the dialogue feels a bit writerly, but only in moments of greatly heightened emotion), for the ebb and flow of moments, only barely connected by anything resembling a plot, has the perfect tang of higher truth to it: the push-pull of feelings and desires that sometimes threatens to overwhelm you, and then a few minutes later you can barely remember it. Still, it's all a little precise, pushing buttons so perfectly that it can't help but feel a little contrived when all is said and done; and deep down inside, I don't know if it has much to say about the death of a child, and the tremendous difficulty in resuming life after that sort of thing, other than "Shit, this is totally the most depressing thing ever, right?" There are far better insights when the film focuses more on the tensions between Becca and Howie's conflicting approaches to grief, and what it does to their marriage, which doesn't seem to be exactly right.

Most of all, it's fucking grueling, without any kind of release (the "uplifting" ending is more of a "a long way into the future, this pain will be lessened" sort of thing). Even Bergman and Bresson and Dreyer, masters of cinematic misery all, understood the need to give the audience a snatch of fresh air, even if it was just in the form of a visual flourish here or there. Mitchell and Lindsay-Abaire and their collaborators have put together an incredibly polished, deeply affecting movie that is at times little more than an elegant form of punishment; but I won't hold that as too much of a sin. It is, after all, a movie that plumbs emotions fully and honestly, and the perpetual look of utter despair on Kidman's face, whatever else it says or does not say about the human condition, will stick with me, I think, for a very long time.