Welcome back, John Demme: After an inconsistent period in the 2000’s (including but not limited to the Manchurian Candidate remake, as well as the listless and uninspired The Truth About Charlie), the director has made what may be his strongest movie since the 90’s. Rachel Getting Married is a new high point in his career, a tense, humorous, and often dark family drama intertwined with the joy and elation of matrimony.
Kym (Anne Hathaway) is a recovering addict coming home for the weekend to celebrate her sister’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Her presence reignites the sisters’ long-standing sibling rivalry, and also coaxes an old family tragedy back to the surface. Their combined dysfunction spills over into the final wedding preparations, perpetually escalating until the day of the wedding.
Demme’s greatest accomplishment with Rachel is the quiet presence he maintains behind the lens. His direction here is very stripped down and streamlined, and he makes a conscious choice to remain as unobtrusive as possible from start to finish. While this gives the movie a certain quality of realism appropriate for the story, it also serves to give as much of the spotlight as possible to the uniformly excellent main and supporting cast. Demme clearly recognizes that Rachel is a movie that hinges entirely on performance; it’s an actor’s movie, and he directs accordingly. The result is one of the best-acted films of 2008. While many superior individual performances exist in other films of that year, there are few ensemble films from ’08 that feature the steady and consistent quality of the performances of Rachel.
But the film is ultimately all Hathaway’s, as Kym provides the spectacles through which we view the world of the Buchman clan. Hathaway is omnipresent, and the movie centers on her much in the same way that the wedding preparations inevitably end up revolving around Kym (the catalyst which draws out her inter-sibling conflicts with Rachel). Hathaway here creates a character who is on the outside looking in, a young woman who doesn’t fit in at home and very much wants to. Kym doesn’t feel as though she belongs; she’s lonely and she yearns for her family’s acceptance (and forgiveness). Hathaway’s greatest success is displaying this vulnerability while simultaneously keeping Kym very guarded, hiding behind a wry wit and self-deprecating sense of humor at all times, even during her wedding rehearsal speech to Rachel and groom Sydney (TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe). Hathaway adeptly portrays both sides of Kym, granting verisimilitude to the role and making her entirely human and relateable.
As good as she is, Hathaway’s role is frequently defined by her interactions with other characters. This is both another point in her favor, as she successfully meshes with the rest of the cast, and a point in favor of the supporting cast. Hathaway has incredible chemistry with each of her fellow castmates, most notably Rosemarie DeWitt’s Rachel, but the other actors and actresses are all excellent in their own right. I personally feel like DeWitt was shortchanged amidst the critical praise Hathaway received here; Rachel is Kym’s mirror, and they spend the bulk of the film bouncing off one another. Their on-screen sisterhood is wholly successful, and no small part of this is due to the frustrated anxiety and understated grace DeWitt brings to her portrayal of the elder sibling. The rest of the supporting cast performs more than admirably, particularly Debra Winger as the sisters’ biological mother (whose performance turns a role that could have been straight out of a soap opera into something more substantial), and Bill Irwin as their father. Irwin is sort of the film’s secret weapon; he provides a great deal of the film’s heart and soul, operating in the background as he attempts to moderate Kym and Rachel’s arguments. He’s also one of the audience’s only connections to the family tragedy the Buchmans seem so keen to forget (aside from Kym and her mother). Some of the film’s strongest emotional payoffs come from his performance, and he deserves high praise for being able to provide those moments without stealing the spotlight from the film’s primary players.
For my part, the film’s triumph is in it’s depiction of the wedding of the title; it is perhaps the most exulting matrimonial shindig I’ve ever seen on film, bursting with love and elation. The celebration, from ceremony to reception, ends up becoming a sort of tactile experience, too, for which Demme should be commended: It’s a long act (probably the longest amount of time spent sequentially in one area in the entire film), and while in most circumstances this segment would simply drag, here the extended length feels necessary. There is a sense that the party has gone on too long, and while there is still joy in it there is also an equal amount of fatigue. The drinks are wearing off; people are realizing that their feet are sore and their throats are scratchy. I have never seen a film that captures this feeling so successfully, and I think that this is an aspect of Rachel that has regrettably (but very understandably) gone unmentioned amidst the praise the movie has received.
Rachel Getting Married is an exciting film; in particular it represents a return to form for Demme, a filmmaker who’s had a hit-and-miss trajectory in his recent career. While it’s unknown what he plans on doing with his time in the future, it’s reassuring to know that the Demme we all grew to admire in the 90’s is still out there. The movie is also another strong display from a Hathaway, an actress who has built a resume with nothing but smart choices. If her Oscar nomination is any indication, Rachel is going to be a stepping stone to even greater things for one of today’s