Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Eleven

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#11 — Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
This is what a family looks like. This is what a family feels like. Though Rachel Getting Married takes place over the course of just a couple of days, the momentous weekend of a wedding, whole histories are splayed out before us, not in the form of burdensome exposition or clumsily shared backstory, but interwoven into every exchange between the different family members. Jenny Lumet’s boldly abrasive script demonstrates a keen understanding of how people who know each other deeply can use that knowledge as verbal weaponry, instinctively building double-meaning into a sentence, causing praise to come with a sword slicing mercilessly at inner frailties, embedded insecurities that have been learned in a lifetime of imposed togetherness. Families learn one another, meaning they know how to hurt just as surely as they are the ones that have the best chance at accelerating the healing process. The film begins with the blackest sheep of the family making a temporary return from a rehab center for the nuptials, and it is immediately clear that coming home is like walking into an angry hug. The squeeze is just a bit too tight, to knock out her breath and remind her that she is not impervious to them. She returns the hug in kind.

It is a movie of raw emotions, but there is also a warmth to it. When damaged families are at the center of a film, there’s often a veneer of judgment imposed by the director and the other cinematic collaborators. It’s a form of distancing from the pain onscreen, a throat-clearing insistence that the poorest examples of human behavior being depicted couldn’t possibly represent a personal truth, a shared compulsion for treating loved ones with scalding unkindness. They are just adhering to Leo Tolstoy’s durable adage, gravitating to the unhappy family because the uniqueness of their dismay makes them better suited for the rigors of dramatic storytelling. That common approach leads to a distance not only between the creator and the characters, but, in turn, between the audience and the work of art. Characters are held up for exhibition, not understanding. A resolutely inquisitive humanist by artistic nature, Jonathan Demme takes a different approach. He is far more intimate, working from a empathetical standpoint. There’s a clear desire to figure out these people onscreen, what makes them wince, what makes them beam, what gives them some respite, however brief, from the emotional aches that dog them. Drama is built around conflict, but there’s something deeper that can be achieved through examining the underlying feelings that lead to the conflicts in the first place.

Demme achieves this through an incredible patient technique that has some of the quality of Direct Cinema, the documentary style of eternally rolling cameras favored by the Maysles brothers and others. At times, Demme seems inclined to be as thorough in his depiction of the weekend wedding as a devoted uncle with a fully-charged camcorder. He takes in as much as he reasonably can, sticking with scenes for extended stretches of time, often lingering after the drama has peaked, all the better to catch the revealing after effects. Among the many benefits, this is a gift for the actors. Anne Hathaway is absolutely revelatory as the wild child barely trying to contain herself as she stands next to her sister who is by default the current center of attention. She nearly quivers with anxiety, wracked by equal doses of worry and guilt, her need for constant and dutiful verification of her worth usually undermined by revulsion over her own neediness, which in turn leads to more awful behavior. Hathaway approaches this character without hesitation, playing the most unlikable facets with conviction and never backing away to plead for greater sympathy than she deserves. She’s backed by a grand team: Rosemarie DeWitt as the titular bride, armed through years of preparation to undercut her sister’s dark energy; Debra Winger as the imperious mother of the bride, pulled back to the family she’s effectively abandoned, doing so with brittle reluctance that leaves it own bruises; and Bill Irwin as the patriarch, barely holding on as the worst moments of the family’s recent history threaten to swamp his soul entirely, leaving him to try and generate happiness out of thin air. Given extra time to work with, they add wrinkles and dimensions to their roles. It’s hard to conceive of any of these characters developed more fully than they are here.

There is something uniquely truthful about the film. It captures the way that painful moments can knock the oxygen out of a room, but also implicitly notes that life progresses after the moment has passed. A toast delivered at an overpopulated rehearsal dinner table may be intensely uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean someone else won’t pick up a glass when its done and offer up their own words. Demme appreciates many things about how people operate, including the fact that no matter what chasms are created, someone will always find a way to cross them. Especially if that someone is family, a person who knows better than anyone the value of traversing that span.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)