All good drama puts a mirror and a scalpel to us, its viewers. Good drama allows us not only to reflect upon ourselves but to reflect upon those subcutaneous, ugly parts of ourselves that so often remain hidden—the bloody blubber; the meat; the gristle; the thudding, pumping inner-workings.
But if all drama cuts, then, certainly, some cuts deeper than others. Rachel Getting Married explores family relations, love, disappointment, self-absorption and bitterness with such incisive penetration that surgical metaphors must—must—be pulled from the surgeon’s sack: Rachel does more than cut to the marrow; it gives arthroscopic insight.
Working from a script by first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of famed filmmaker Sidney Lumet) and directed by Jonathan Demme (Jimmy Carter Man from Plains), Rachel centers around Kym (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who, at the film’s opening, is released from rehab so she can attend her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) bohemian wedding.
Kym, a chain-smoking former model and a tornado of narcissism, wreaks havoc on the festive gathering. But the deeply dysfunctional family, whose frayed familial ties were already stretched to the barest thread, was ready to be blown apart anyway. And so buried traumas are exhumed, deep resentments come geyser-gushing to the surface and, strangely, an unexpected amount of fun—in the form of painful humor and joyous partying—is had along the way.
That Rachel is directed by Demme—most famed for thriller masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs—will come as a surprise, unless one is familiar with the other thematic directions he has explored. Soon after Silence, Demme directed the highly dramatic Philadelphia, going from there to work on several documentaries (The Agronomist, Jimmy Carter Man from Plains). He even, in 1984, made the nearly perfect concert movie about The Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense.
Drawing on his documentary work, Demme employs an ultra-cinéma vérité approach, with shaky, close-range handheld camerawork, exceptional naturalism in sets and lighting, and an almost total lack of symbolism or other artistic liberties. He also pulls from his experience with music and concert video and fills Rachel with near-nonstop diegetic music—that is, music that comes naturally from the scene, mostly from bands or DJs playing at the wedding (the non-professional actor, Tunde Adebimpe, who plays Rachel’s husband-to-be and who sings at one point, is from the New York-based band TV on the Radio).
This highly naturalistic, near-documentary-like approach adds verisimilitude, but it also allows the audience’s concentration to really remain on the story and the excellent performances. Hathaway (The Princess Diaries, Brokeback Mountain), the most recognizable face, gives her best role to date. Presenting a layer of manic social-awkwardness driven by self-loathing, over a core of needy agony, Hathaway creates a character that is multi-layered and neither likeable nor easily dismissed. Special mention must also be made of Debra Winger (Terms of Endearment), who plays, with superb nuance, the sisters’ emotionally distant mother.
Everything in Rachel Getting Married flows and fits together naturally, smoothly and without pretension. There simply isn’t a single false note or bit of contrivance. Fine acting; great music; understated, clear direction; and a wise and deeply thought-out script add up to what is, as of yet, the best drama of 2008. See it with a member of your own dysfunctional family, that is, anyone in your family.
Rachel Getting Married
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Written by Jenny Lumet
With Anne Hathaway, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mather Zickel, Bill Irwin, Debra Winger and Anna Deavere Smith
114 min., R