Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For February, we’re celebrating acclaimed genre-bender Jonathan Demme. Read the rest of our coverage here.
Good movies are no stranger to trauma, hurt, or hardship. These things give the images projected and stories a truth that allows the audience to forget they’re fiction, but even in the best films, that sort of trauma is usually manicured, packaged, and made digestible in two-hour chunks. Some of the greatest works of cinema still put our collective pain into little boxes that viewers can open and close when needed.
Rachel Getting Married is rife with the same sort of pain, pathos, and unfathomable tragedy that has fueled many of those films. However, it presents an uglier, more unvarnished version of those elements and emotions. There’s an unsparing realness to the story it tells, of a family celebrating a beautiful occasion and reliving their worst losses at the same time. The results are, at times, hard to watch. But that just speaks to the raw nerve and level of authenticity that director Jonathan Demme manages to achieve here.
His 2008 film offers a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at a tumultuous weekend full of nuptials and barely-suppressed familial strife. Kym (Anne Hathaway) exacerbates that strife when she goes on leave from rehab to join in her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. Over the course of the weekend, she tries to evade her hovering father, Bill (Paul Buchanon), seek out her mother, Abby (Debra Winger), and commiserate with the best man, Kieran (Matthew Zickel).
In other hands, that could be the setup for a zany comedy, full of wacky wedding hijinks, inevitable heart-to-hearts, and ever so many delightful misunderstandings. But on Demme’s watch, with the strength of a script penned by Jenny Lumet, the results are relatable, occasionally harrowing, and consistently real.
Much of that achievement comes down to presentation and tone. Demme and cinematographer Declan Quinn use a Steadicam approach that lends Rachel Getting Married the air of a home movie or secret documentary. Each sequence includes cuts and scene changes and different angles for a given moment, but Quinn and company shoot so much of the movie as though there’s one more person in the room, unseen and observing these events, without the usual flash or flourish of professional videography. That, along with the freeform roar of the film’s diegetic score, creates a durable realism throughout.
The same approach bears out in the dialogue and performances. This is not a film with pitch-perfect monologues or grand speeches that tidily sum up each key idea. It is, instead, full of ragged arguments and jumbled conversations. Discussions and debates bleed into one another. Friends and onlookers drift through different rooms and interject only to be shooed and shushed. There’s an awkwardness to everything here that makes these heart-rending verbal skirmishes hard to take at times but which also gives them a core of honesty in lieu of the usual Hollywood gloss.
By the same token, editor Tim Squyres gives each of these important moments a chance to breathe. For better or worse, Rachel Getting Married genuinely feels like attending a wedding. While at that results in extended celebration sequences that come off mildly indulgent at times, it also means the movie can lull the viewer into a false sense of security before knocking them over with something powerful.
Familiar rehearsal dinner toasts, unexpected chats at the salon, or a simple dishwasher-loading contest can turn into a canvas for long-held grievances, tough confessions and apologies, and the most painful of reminders. Demme and Squyres devote enough of the film’s runtime to the wooly, recognizable chaos of a normal wedding that it puts the sore personal issues lurking in the background into stark relief.
Of course, it’s the performers at the film’s center that give those issues life and weight. Hathaway more than earns her awards seasons plaudits here, playing Kym as someone yearning to be recognized and accepted while also not wanting to be constantly measured by her worst mistakes. DeWitt convincingly portrays her comparatively stable sister, one who feels neglected in the shadow of her sibling’s attention-grabbing acts of rebellion and wants this one day to be hers and hers alone.
On the peripheries, Irwin cuts the perfect image of a father trying to keep peace and manage everyone and everything despite his own barely-suppressed anxieties. Furthermore, Winger, despite only being called forth in big moments, summons a mother who can’t quite bear to be a part of this anymore.
Demme and Squyres devote enough of the film’s runtime to the wooly, recognizable chaos of a normal wedding that it puts the sore personal issues lurking in the background into stark relief.
There’s a familiar tenor to the fragile peace and inevitable blow-ups that consume the four members of this family collectively and individually over the course of the film. The balance between celebration and loss that consumes this movie flows between each of them. Every member feels different shades of the same, unfixable scars that stem from one tragedy, and it marks each of them differently.
But those marks do not go away. The grievances that fuel those problems are not magically solved with a wedding, or a moment of shared vulnerability, or a revealing monologue. Instead, they are, at most, kept at bay for a little while. The pain is set aside for a few truly blissful moments and exchanged for fleeting but heartening moments of sincere joy and mutual appreciation until reality seeps back in. The realest thing about Rachel Getting Married is not its cinema verité style, its lived-in performances, or its unstructured, organic vibe. It’s that by the end of the film, nothing is really resolved. It’s merely put on hold for a moment.
There’s a messiness to real life that even the best films cannot always capture. When they do, that truth doesn’t just emerge from overlapping dialogue or a home movie aesthetic. It comes through in the way our deepest wounds—and our greatest losses—cannot be overcome in a single weekend, no matter how grand or eventful it may be, let alone in two hours beneath the silver screen.