“I am Shiva the destroyer, your harbinger of doom this evening.” – Kym (Anne Hathaway)
Every year, there are a couple of art house movies that audiences do not quite know what to make of. In 2008, one of the poorer years for cinema in recent memory, Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married was praised to the rafters by some critics, yet audiences shrugged it off. I will include myself in the group who did not respond to it. However, after several years of studying film and refining my tastes, I revisited Demme’s drama over the weekend. After another watch, I can conclude that I do not think the director has made a finer narrative film.
It is very helpful to know that director Robert Altman – a man who I will eventually get around to exploring on The Essentials one of these days – was the primary influence on the film, released a couple of years after his death. Altman was a pro at shining a light on small, personal stories amidst large spaces. Rachel Getting Married, on the one hand, is a psychological drama, about a recovering drug addict, Kym (Anne Hathaway in an Oscar-nominated performance), returning home to attend her older sister’s wedding. On the other hand, the film is about a wedding and spends a lot of time watching characters preparing, toasting, cleaning, practicing music, exchanging vows and dancing. Also, everyone speaks too quickly to the point that the dialogue often overlaps – a very Altman-esque touch.
The film is both an intimate story of an addict’s troubled past returning to greet her at a family function, as well as a lavish, languid wedding video of sorts. These two elements – the interior drama and the exterior festivities – would normally be at odds with each other. However, under Demme’s eye, guided by the outstanding script from Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney), the oddness meshes with the extravagance very well. A wedding is where personal and familial problems come to a head, and this one is no different.
The drama is filmed in two ways: scenes with Kym, in group therapy, where she reveals the dark way she turned her family against her, is like a filmed diary. The camera hardly leaves Hathaway’s side as she exposes the demons within her. In the moments with the wedding shenanigans, though, Kym is almost rarely seen. Cinematographer Declan Quinn positions the camera in a way during the rehearsal dinner scene that blocks Rachel’s head from our view and nobody else’s. This section is like a wedding video: full of joy and ignoring anything that can suffocate the happy tone (i.e., Kym).
Kym feels like a small person in a big house, like David Byrne trapped in an oversized suit or Clarice Starling walking through Buffalo Bill’s dungeon. She has an unfiltered mouth, her hair is shoulder-length but not all of it is level. When she gets up to toast her sister, Kym stumbles through it and makes the speech all about this being her chance to apologize and atone for her wrongdoing. As kind as the gesture is, Kym hogs the microphone and turns the speech into one more about her – the self-referred “harbinger of doom” – than the bride-to-be. It is both emotionally powerful and cringeworthy, two adjectives that should not go together but manage to.
Hathaway gives a sharp and somber performance as a woman without an ounce of grace trying not to implode at her sister’s wedding. Hathaway’s jagged stance, her grouchy and expressive face, her sardonic tone of voice creates a character that is as memorable as she is mysterious. As Kym wanders through the house like a character in an Ibsen play, we are at her side, noticing where things are set up, how people are acting toward each other. When Kym reveals to us the moment that sent her spiraling out – hopped up on Percocet, she drove the family’s car off a bridge and killed her younger brother, Ethan – Hathaway is bare and lucid.
Kym wants to be the maid of honour, but she is not made of any honour in her family’s eyes. That family is full of exceptional character actors giving superb turns: Rosemarie DeWitt as Rachel, the model sister trying to re-examine her relationship with Kym on the most packed weekend of her life; Bill Irwin as Paul, trying to be twice as jovial as everyone else as a way to protect his girls and silence the past; Debra Winger as Abby, Paul’s ex-wife and the girls’ mother, a flustered and distant lady who has not forgiven Kym.
One creative touch of Demme’s, a man who is no stranger to music-infested movies, is how the only music heard throughout Rachel Getting Married comes from the band, even when they are rehearsing a few rooms away. The fact that the music sounds unfinished works in bringing the viewer to this space of waiting and preparation. One terrific choice of Lumet, the screenwriter, is that Rachel’s husband, Sidney (played by TV on the Radio frontman Tunde Adebimpe) is African-American. Paul’s second wife, Carol (Anna Deavere Smith), is also African-American. The racial barriers are gone, as it should be at a wedding. Fittingly, a few weeks after Rachel Getting Married came out, Americans elected Barack Obama as their president.
Rachel Getting Married is an absorbing film, both intimate and extravagant. Few films in recent memory have created such vivid characters and made them confront the scars of their pasts without forcing the characters into contrived drama. The wedding at the end is a long denouement to the story, but it also feels long-winded for a reason, to insert some celebration into the cynicism. There is pain and joy, depression and celebration. And not a note of this very bi-polar drama feels false.