Rachel Getting Married remains arguably the definitive showcase of Demme’s hard-fought humanism.
On a first viewing, Rachel Getting Married is terrifying in its mounting domestic fury, taking then-trendy cringe comedy into red levels of melodrama as recovering addict Kym (Anne Hathaway) returns home for her sister’s wedding less like a prodigal child and more like a biblical plague. From the moment Kym sets foot back in the family home, she conjures demons from her family’s past, and her presence agitates the preexisting stress of wedding planning to the point that her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) can barely contain her long-simmering rage over her sibling’s destructive behavior.
To be sure, Hathaway’s performance still startles with its intensity. There’s an arrested childishness in Kym’s demeanor: her head bobs with emphasis when she’s irritated, and she lacks any filter to halt her immediate need for attention. In one of the film’s most arresting scenes, a rehearsal dinner filled with cheesy but earnest speeches is interrupted by Kym taking the floor and using the occasion to perform the amends step of her rehab. As Kym rambles anecdotes of her addict past, the camera closes in on the deathly silent guests, picking up on the terror in their darting eyes. The scene’s gradual escalation of cringe comedy, from the bougie toasts of friends recounting the global travels of Rachel and her fiancé, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), through to Kym’s nightmarish self-absolution, cements Kym as unwelcome in her sister’s eyes, and it’s hard not to agree with Rachel’s point of view.
Returning to the film after a decade, however, it is easier to see Kym not as the sole agent of chaos but rather the catalyst that awakens the family’s dormant dysfunction. Rachel herself makes a far greater impression this time around for being Kym’s comically exaggerated inverse: where Kym is reserved and recovering, Rachel is flamboyant and successful, having traveled the world on endless vacations while her sister spends most of her life confined in various rehabilitation centers. As much as Kym’s need for attention grates, it’s easy to see her petulance as a natural reaction to her more perfect sibling; that she is the protagonist and yet the film still bears Rachel’s name in the title only exacerbates the overwhelming feeling that Kym, far from hogging the spotlight, is swept under the rug.
If Hathaway plays Kym with no filter, too busy devoting all conscious space to staying clean to bother with niceties and tact, DeWitt laces Rachel’s interactions with her sister with enough calm to slip pure venom by her parents without them noticing but to nevertheless level Kym. Take a scene where the two get into a spat over Kym’s disastrous rehearsal dinner toast: the two start to trade increasingly hostile barbs in front of their family, dancing around the source of their intense division. Just as catharsis might be reached, Rachel abruptly tells everyone that she is pregnant, causing onlookers to burst into excited chatter and hugs as Kym is left futilely protesting, “That is so unfair!” As silly as Kym’s reaction is, it’s not without cause, as she’s right to note that it immediately cut her off, and the little smile on Rachel’s face looks more like one of victory, not joy to be sharing the news.
As the two sisters grow further divided, however, they reveal a common bond of trauma that links them inexorably. The acknowledgement of the family’s past catastrophe, that of youngest child Ethan being killed in a car accident caused by a drunk Kym, is withheld not as a twist but instead as a choice to let the viewer ingratiate with the family, sense something is wrong and largely piece together the tragedy before official confirmation is given. Demme subtly establishes the reverberating sorrow of the event nearly from the outset, as in a scene of Kym’s return home in which handheld cameras follow her around the house as she immediately heads for Ethan’s bedroom to look at its eerily preserved artifacts before returning to her own mothballed room. Once things become more explicit, they do not explain the characters so much as fill in context around their behavior. Kym’s numbed stasis speaks for itself, but it’s much easier to take stock of Rachel in the wake of the revelation, which renders her irritatingly bourgeois, pretentious travel as not a flaunting of privilege but her own attempt to outpace her agony.
We also see how the horror of the child’s death has torn the rest of the family apart, especially the sisters’ dad, Paul (Bill Irwin), a man whose aggressive good cheer is rapidly revealed to be a desperately maintained façade papering over an unfathomable pain. Paul spends most of the movie looking like he’s headed for an aneurysm in his efforts to keep the peace, but more and more it becomes clear that he is also juggling the intensely conflicting feelings of having both of his living, warring children back at home with the ghost of their brother situated between them. When the drama comes to a head, Rachel finally snaps and openly throws Ethan’s death in Kym’s face, and Paul is left sitting helpless as he can only muster the strength to mutter “it was an accident” over and over as his children keep using the word “killed” in relation to his son. Eventually, he is reduced to tears that he fights so hard to hold back he renders himself mute and shaking, waving off any attempt to console him.
In spite of it all, however, Rachel Getting Married remains arguably the definitive showcase of Demme’s hard-fought humanism. There are uncountable moments of small grace in the film, like the glimpses of the sisters forgetting their animosity when watching their dad get into a good-natured competition with Sidney, or how a later moment of reconciliation happens in a quiet fashion as Rachel helps Kym get cleaned up for the wedding, sitting by the tub as Kym shaves her armpits. Even Rachel’s wedding, with its casually appropriative mixture of Indian dress, non-denominational officiant and Middle Eastern band, exudes only the warmth of Rachel’s carefully built distraction from her lingering trauma. Above all is Demme’s use of music in every piece of empty space to generate a sense of togetherness and understanding, from the wedding band to Robyn Hitchcock playing a song or two to Adebimpe crooning Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” as Sidney delivers his vows to Rachel as Demme leaves Kym carefully blocked in the background to capture her range of emotions as she bears witness to the moment. For all of the film’s acrimony, it ultimately upholds a beautiful, real and, yes, loving vision of family, and, curiously, the line that best summarizes it comes from Sidney’s mom during the earlier rehearsal dinner. Gazing over two enjoined families, the woman beams, “We are one, all of us. And this is how it is in heaven. Just like this. And I’m so glad we’re having a rehearsal on it now.”