Every family has its black sheep. For the clan in Jonathan Demme's 'Rachel Getting Married,' it's Kym (Anne Hathaway). A lifelong drug abuser, she's fresh out of her latest stint in rehab, and arrives at the pending nuptials of her sister, Rachel, like a steamroller. Kym may be nine months sober, but she's no less acidic, and with a mother and father still mired in denial and regret over Kym's accidental drowning of the family's youngest brother, Ethan, the pressure of Rachel's wedding will quickly cause Kym's delicate mental state to fully unravel. The results will not be pretty.
From this precariously meager story, Demme is able to wring his most vibrant and alive film since 'The Silence of the Lambs.' Working from a thinly-veiled autobiographical script by Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sydney), and bolstered by a career-altering performance by Anne Hathaway as Kym, Demme ladles on the shaky cinema verite camerawork and indulgent forays into clunky neo-realism, yet still manages to mine enough universal emotional notes that 'Rachel Getting Married' emerges as a perceptive, if sometimes difficult to embrace, drama.
At the core of the film's success is Hathaway, who takes a character who is nearly impossible to like, and wears us down by refusing to pretty up Kym or make palatable her self-destructive nature. Though it comes relatively early in the film, the centerpiece scene of 'Rachel Getting Married' is Kym's absolutely cringe-worthy toast-slash-apology to Rachel (played with great emotion by the underrated Rosemarie DeWitt). The scene crystallizes Demme, Lumet, and Hathaway's intention to not make nice with the audience. Watch as Hathaway fearlessly allows Kym to embarrass herself with her relentless narcissism masquerading as futile self-pity. The scene emerges as unbelievably unsettling, a tension that Demme and Lumet will attempt -- largely successfully -- to sustain for the film's 117 minutes.
Most vital and piercing are Kym's wranglings with her parents. Bill Irwin, as Paul, nails a father figure identifiable to many of us -- the one who wants to love and protect his daughter to the point of emasculation, and despite her unreasonable demands. Some of the most damaging scenes in the film are the realizations by Rachel that the attention paid to Kym's disease robbed her of her own needs and security as a child. And the long-simmering confrontation that finally erupts near film's end between Kym and her mother Abby (Debra Winger) is shocking in its suddenness and ferocity. The way Lumet and Demme eventually resolve the friction is surprising -- rarely in a family drama has so much been said with so little. And the feelings we are left with, of Kym's final understanding that there may never be resolution with her family but that hope is still worth holding onto, sits with us long after the end credits roll.
'Rachel Getting Married' does often teeter on the brink of pretentiousness. In his admirable quest for authenticity, Demme sometimes lets his jumpy camera linger too long on uninteresting incidentals, or lets the pace flag for narrative moments that deflate the film's inertia. Some scenes go on too long, while others are cut too short -- Demme seems particularly interested in the admittedly sweet shadings of Rachel and Sydney's elongated marriage ceremony that ends the film, but it's at the expense of more satisfactorily tying up the thread's of Kym's story. Likewise the early scenes at her AA meetings, or her sexual interactions with Rachel's fiancee's best man Kieran (Mather Zickel), feel painfully truncated. (Indeed, a look at this Blu-ray's deleted scenes reveal much flesh from these interactions has been left on the cutting room floor.)
Yet it's these very imperfections that give 'Rachel Getting Married' life. This is certainly a Demme transformed. After a string of disappointments that contained interesting elements ('Beloved,' 'Truth About Charlie,' 'Manchurian Candidate'), Demme seems engaged with cinema in way he hasn't before. Aided by a luminous performance by Hathaway, he's able to elevate a somewhat self-conscious script and embolden it with genuine and piercing moments of truth and beauty. 'Rachel Getting Married' is, like it's main character, rough around the edges, but in that rough there is quite a diamond.
Shot on digital video, with an understated visual style and a camera that shakes a lot, 'Rachel Getting Married' is not a film that benefits much from the trip to high-def. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.78:1) looks as good as the material allows.
'Rachel Getting Married' looks like it was shot on video. Blacks never have that inky look of the best film transfers, and contrast blows out often. The image has a washed-out, even drab appearance, and the color palette never really sparkles. Certainly, the image is as sharp as possible, and all things considered, detail and depth are adequate. Though there is motion blur and poor shadow delineation, that's indicative of the material, not the transfer. Noise is present, and sometimes intense. Sony gives us a solid encode, however, and there are no major artifacts that distract. Don't expect a show-stopper here, just a very good representation of the source.
Like the video, the English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) that Sony offers for 'Rachel Getting Married' does what it can with this dialogue-driven sound mix.
Sound quality can vary. It appears a good deal of 'Rachel Getting Married' uses on-location sound, so expect fluctuations in dynamic range and low bass extension. Some words can be muffled, but generally I found it intelligible and dialogue well-balanced. Unfortunately, though Jonathan Demme's use of pop/rock songs is well-done in terms of essentially serving as the film's score, it's mixed too loud. There were frequent moments when I felt blown out of my chair, with the music overpowering. There is also little in the way of surround use -- I barely noticed the rears being active. 'Rachel Getting Married' has a very naturalistic sound mix, which this TrueHD track presents well, just not spectacularly.
Sony has put together a straightforward collection of supplements for 'Rachel Getting Married.' Aside from a few oddities (the lack of an actual director's commentary is puzzling), this is an intelligent and well-produced package. All video materials are 480i/MPEG-2 only, with optional English subtitles.
'Rachel Getting Married' is a tough, even unrelenting, drama. It unnerves with a simmering tension, and a very memorable performance by Anne Hathaway. It's one of Jonathan Demme's best films. This Blu-ray does the best it can with the cinema verite nature of the material. with well-done video and audio, and some intelligent supplements. 'Rachel Getting Married' is well worth checking out.