Jonathan Demme died this week. He’ll perhaps be best remembered as the director of Silence of the Lambs, the film for which he won an Academy Award for Best Director, but upon hearing the news I immediately thought of another film, 2008’s Rachel Getting Married. Both movies are masterpieces, pillars of Demme’s oeuvre—one well-known, one underrated. Rachel is as unruly, as messy, as Silence is disciplined and pristine.
But enough of comparisons; it’s the later film I want to write about. Underappreciated when it first hit theaters, Rachel Getting Married is slowly gaining recognition in retrospect as one of the finest of the 21st century.
To those who ask what I find so special about Rachel Getting Married, I’ll often say that the film feels alive in a way that other films simply aren’t, and aren’t even designed to be. It’s one of those works of art that seems less made than discovered—not a narrative constructed and presented for an audience so much as it is a collection of found objects, found moments. The camera wanders in Altmanesque fashion like a guest at a cocktail party, listening in on one conversation, then another. From the events of a couple days and the story of one troubled family, the film unfolds an entire universe.
The movie concerns the Buchmans, on the occasion of the wedding of their daughter Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Returning home for the wedding is younger sister Kym (Anne Hathaway in a powerful performance for which she justly received the film’s sole Oscar nomination). Kym is fresh out of drug rehab, and she brings with her a load of emotional baggage, including a fierce and confusing mix of love and resentment for her sister, lingering shame over the wreckage of her addiction, and a self-destructive streak.
“I’m Shiva the destroyer, and your harbinger of doom for the evening,” Kym says in a toast at Rachel’s rehearsal dinner, to nervous laughter. The scene is indicative of a couple themes that keep recurring throughout the film: Kym’s narcissism, her tendency to make everything about her, and also the uncomfortable emotions she provokes in those around her, her family in particular. Kym’s really is a harbinger, an angel of death carrying reminders of emotional wounds they’d prefer not to reopen.
Kym’s separated parents, played by Bill Irwin and Debra Winger, are studies in WASPish self-repression. Irwin’s unconditional love and constant concern are suffocating both to Kym and to himself; only occasionally does it become clear the extent of his residual anger toward Kym for the damage her addiction did to their lives. Winger, meanwhile, is a kind but withholding mother whose calm demeanor hides rage just underneath the surface. Kym and Rachel, meanwhile, have their own issues. Kym feels shamed by Rachel, the good daughter universally beloved by family, friends, and fiancé. This shame in turn provokes Kym’s worse instincts: her self-destructive narcissism, her compulsion to draw everyone’s attention to herself, even when that attention is negative. And Rachel, still resentful of the way Kym’s addiction absorbed all their parents energy and attention, sees Kym’s awkward plays for love and affection as pure selfishness, a way to make everything about Kym when it’s her wedding. Throughout it all, a steady drumbeat, is the memory of what happened to a mysteriously absent youngest brother, Ethan, and the role Kym played in what happened to him.
That this all manages to be more than a simple family drama is a testament to the film’s psychological depths—depths that, even after several scenes of family arguments that play out like family therapy sessions, are still largely left unplumbed. Watching Kym, Rachel, and their parents maneuver around each other, you’re reminded that the human psyche is a mystery that pop psychology can only begin to penetrate, and that it’s paradoxically the people closest to us who remain the most opaque: our families, and even ourselves. The difficult business of being a human—a solitary ego with pain, and shame, and a hunger to be loved, in delicate relationship with other egos possessing similar pains, shames, hungers—is the inquiry at the heart of Rachel Getting Married.
And then there’s the music. God, the music. Rachel’s fiancé Sidney (TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adembimpe) is a musician, with musician friends who descend upon the Buchman household and spend nearly every minute of the film’s runtime practicing or performing. This, ultimately, is the thing that elevates Rachel Getting Married, the thing that brings it alive: its excess, the things about it that cannot be contained within the boundaries of its familial story. The film is always running off into little corners, whether it’s to reveal a surprise pregnancy, embroil the groom and the father of the bride in an impromptu dishwasher-loading contest, or indulge in a seemingly endless sequence of post-nuptial singing, dancing, and revelry that has nothing to do with the core story.
It’s this excess that some critics and audiences found indulgent. They’re wrong. It’s transcendent, the film’s reminder that in the midst of the damage we do to each other there still bubble up the things the darkness can never suppress: singing, and dancing, and love, and art. Not least the art that Jonathan Demme left us in Rachel Getting Married, the film whose solace I hold today as a candle against the darkness of his death.
Andrew DeYoung is the author of The Exo Project. He edits children’s books and lives in Saint Paul with his wife and daughter.