Directed by Jonathan Demme
It’s hard to believe that the guy who directed Philadelphia also directed Rachel Getting Married. They are two very different films, both in content and form. In Philadelphia, every shot feels controlled, and in this case every shot feels incredibly loose, almost improvised. This is a story about chaos, reveling in family turmoil but also the celebration of such pandemonium and the ways it reflects life as a whole. And yes, I used a thesaurus for that last sentence.
Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt) isn’t the protagonist of her own story. That story is about her wedding weekend, but as must always happen, she is upstaged by her sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway). Kym is an addict, and she receives a weekend pass to attend the wedding from the rehab clinic in which she resides and refers to like it’s a prison. We meet her before we meet the wedding party, and we follow her with a wide angle, handheld camera into the circus-like setting. It’s a comfortably large Connecticut home, full of friends, family, musicians and caterers. The wedding will be held in the backyard, making the entire house feel like the green room of a large performance.
Kym enters this setting, both full of old memories and somehow strangely new to her, with a certain apprehension, and every subsequent interaction feels momentous. Kym is that person who’s been away for sometime and whose reputation greatly precedes her. We don’t know the full extent of her troubled past, but it’s conveyed to us through Kym’s chain-smoking habit and the sideways glances of others.
When Kym first embraces Rachel, we get the sense that they have a sibling bond formed by their decades together, but that there is an accompanying distance between them. As Kym reunites with other guests and struggles through the pleasantries of meeting even more, she seems to come closer and closer to her breaking point. Even without a backstory, we understand what this character is going through. Her father won’t trust her with his car, he keeps a watchful eye over her, her mother seems to want nothing to do with her, and all Kym has at her disposal is a me-against-the-world type of anger and self-righteousness.
The film is shot most often handheld, with only diegetic music. It grounds the movie and makes the whole thing feel like a series of found footage clips. During parts of the following wedding ceremony, we will actually see the digital video footage from the groom’s brother’s camera. The shooting style immerses us in the moment and in the chaos. At the same time, the music which seems to score each scene (but is produced from characters within the scene), emphasizes Rachel’s isolation. It sounds a bit forlorn at times and suspenseful in others, as if the music reflects Rachel’s own frame of mind. It’s also quite impressive on a thematic level that we only ever really hear the music through walls and through windows, with Kym always one step removed from the celebration.
The weekend would be chaotic even were we not following a character like Kym. It’s a wedding celebration, full of friendly faces and new ones. You’re as likely to bump into someone you’ve known your whole life as you are to meet someone with whom you now share a permanent connection. Rachel’s husband-to-be, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), is new to Kym and to many of the relatives. Both families, in fact, seem to be meeting each other for the first time, and because of the marital bond between Rachel and Sidney, they are eager to embrace each other despite having no relationship previously.
This willingness to jump into a new situation makes Kym stand out even more. Where they dive in head first, she withdraws. We can only guess why, based on our collective understanding or semi-understanding of what it means to live with addiction, though we’re given clues slowly through the film hinting at Kym’s relationship with her family. Beyond just being a problem child, we eventually receive the gut punch information that she once crashed her car, killing a young brother named Ethan. She was under the influence at the time.
We learn this when Kym tells her story at an AA meeting. No one would dare call attention to this story, most likely, even though every interaction in the film orbits this history between Kym and the people around her. This revelation colors the way we see the rest of the film, though part of me thought it possible that Kym was lying in the meeting.
She’s not the most trustworthy character in the first half of the film, as made clear by her pleasant sister Rachel’s complaints to their father, Paul (Bill Irwin). Rachel complains that everything is about Kym after Kym delivers a long, possibly heartfelt speech at the rehearsal dinner which Rachel believes was really just another cry for attention.
The film focuses on Kym’s relationships with her family more than the backstory that dented such relationships. Is it important that we know about the death of the previously unseen younger brother? I’d argue that the film was just as captivating before the reveal as after, though the death does allow for a few gut wrenching moments of grief.
The most dynamic moments in the film, though, follow Kym’s struggles blending into this strange though once familiar world. I think there’s something universal in this struggle even if we don’t understand her specific reasons for not fitting in. Through the shooting style and the lack of any cinematic score, we’re thrown into the insanity alongside Kym. We are Kym, at least until we learn more about her backstory.
That isn’t to say that the backstory is bad, by any means. Though it feels potentially manipulative (similar to the death of a child backstory in last year’s Manchester by the Sea), Kym’s history has the desired effect. It makes us look at her differently and implies that she’s not really the disaffected, unlikeable character she was at the start. Even so, I never felt that she was truly unlikeable even as her behavior served only to alienate those around her. She’s not the type of person who comes across great upon introduction, but there’s enough depth there for us to understand that she’s working through something.
Ethan’s death makes us empathize more with Kym, and when she’s finally accepted by her family, minus maybe her mother, we really feel the energy in the room, at least I felt it. This is a film about capturing an emotion or a series of emotions. It matters less who these people are than what they’re celebrating. It’s the union of two families, their unfamiliarity with each other underscored by their race. These are families and people from different backgrounds, brought together by positive emotions and, to be a little cheesy, love. It’s all wonderful, or it’s meant to be. The camera wanders over to capture the faces of everyone present, so even if this is Kym’s story and Rachel’s to an extent, it’s really about the joy of everyone involved.
I really felt the lived in quality of these characters’ relationships, likely made more impactful by the constant singing and dancing seen throughout the film. It’s a celebration, so as much as the characters talk, so too do they dance, sing and play games.
And yet this unwavering positivity is juxtaposed with Kym’s absolutely frightening isolation. Just as I felt the affection throughout the constant crowds, I felt Kym’s depression. As she confesses in the meeting, she doesn’t know if she can ever be forgiven or even if she wants to be forgiven. She suffers greatly, and there seems to be no light at the end of a tunnel. The most striking element of the story, in my mind, is the juxtaposition of these two states of mind and how they can both seemingly exist without affecting the other.
Kym’s negativity is acknowledged by Rachel and some of the others, but it hardly dampens the mood of the ceremony and surrounding activities. Similarly, the happiness felt by Kym’s family doesn’t seem to have any effect on her deep unhappiness, but considering what we learn about her history, how could it possibly help? How could anything help?
In screenwriting, the end of act 2 is often called the “dark night of the soul,” but this is the first film I’ve seen in a while in which I really felt that “dark night.” When Kym willfully crashes her father’s car into a tree following a series of fights with her sister, father and mother, I was right there with her. I felt as concussed and bruised as she was, and watching her cradle up into a ball in the driver’s seat the next morning was heartbreaking. I couldn’t imagine how she’d find the strength to pull herself out of the car.
And yet she did. And then she attended the wedding, and the camera starts to pull away from her as she finds the ability to blend in for the first time all weekend. She just becomes another happy face in the crowd, celebrating Rachel’s wedding. And it’s amazing to watch. It’s optimistic and heartwarming, and that’s the story. As two families meet each other and anticipate a life in each other’s spheres, Kym at last joins in on the fun.
In the last shot, Rachel bids her sister goodbye, and as Kym climbs into the car taking her away from the family house, she finally finds her way back home.
Up Next: An American in Paris (1951), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), The Bad and the Beautiful (1953)