In “The Silence of the Lambs,” the film that made the bogeyman into a thing of mainstream drama, the camera holds a fixed gaze upon Hannibal Lecter. The frame is as focused upon the content as Lecter is on his subject of interest, Clarice Starling. When she first meets Lecter, we see him in her approaching point of view: as his head rotates to follow her, the steady pan of the camera mirrors his roaming lookout for an eerie unity of form and content. Director Jonathan Demme’s formal control never lets up from here onward, thus instilling a specific tension to the proceedings. Like the omnipresent eye of Lecter, viewers never loose sight of Starling, while she slowly tightens the grip upon her own target.
This controlled mastery has pinned Demme as a formalist and “Silence” as his exemplary entry. His consistency is what unifies the dual story strands into a classical narrative and helps deliver a tense payout at the finale. Yet Demme has never been adverse to wandering into other styles. His latest entry, “Rachel Getting Married,” from a script by Jenny Lumet, disguises his control in a seemingly chaotic verite sensibility. After one scene, we wonder if the operator of the nervy hand-held camera were afraid he couldn’t keep up with the action.
Demme’s open-form style captures a wedding weekend of an upper-class family. He unveils the realistic flip-side of sentimental family dramas like “The Family Stone,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and a pile of others. (Hence, “Rachel” currently thrives at the arthouse, while the multiplexes prefer the shallow glossy variety.) It would appear that Demme loosens his grip to provide the expected ficto-doc indie style, as if Rachel is just sitting in for “Margot.” Yet Demme’s opening up serves as another example of his varied filmic control.
Demme keeps a close eye on his shaggy family drama and, by assembling it, creates a platform for numerous natural performers to shine. Perhaps the magic happened in rehearsal, or maybe it resulted from some inspired casting, but every role plays as if the actors had lived their parts. The film’s centerpiece isn’t the titular character, but Kym –played by Anne Hathaway, who more than proves her range by working miles away from her light comic style. An addict in treatment who comes home for the wedding, Kym first flaunts a defensive teenage-ish angst, at once stale and artificially flavored. She knows her father, Paul (Bill Irwin), will have an eye fixed on her and that she’ll surely butt heads with her sis, Rachel, the bride. Facing the two of them, Kym continues to come off as trite as Juno taking on a pack of mean girls. But when the family’s anguish is squeezed out a drop at a time, Hathaway begins to feel her role from the body outward. Her addictive character has much experience with rage, though Kym seems to rediscover the feeling anew as she attempts to re-assimilate with her family. It’s as if Hathaway taps into some psychological channel that lets the emotions run almost beyond her control. Nonetheless, as if in a tuned method acting style, she never goes overboard: in fact, Hathaway may just raise viewer expectations for such roles.
Rachel is a very American bride, one who wants it all for her wedding celebration. Yet for the most part, it seems as if she were always patient with her very needy sister, although the attention-getting demands of Kym would drive just about anyone batty. The rehearsal dinner plays as especially nerve-wracking. After numerous family members offer best wishes to the couple, Rachel’s reach for the microphone is like a dive into the deepest realms of discomfort – for the viewers as much as the dinner guests on screen. If Kym isn’t the center of attention, then she’ll go to any means to get it – even inappropriately illustrating the details of her dependency. The dinner party collectively squirms at her every word. Her dutiful father has come to expect it, while Rachel has just about had it.
As things begin to boil over, we wonder about the shadowy figure of Kym’s mother. The tragedy in the family’s closet may have done in this divorced woman – or perhaps she’s an emotionally disconnected type, a non-parent who may have permanently effected a needy child like Kym. As the mother, Debra Winger’s open countenance channels all this mystery, while she, at age 58, may be the most gorgeous player in a very attractive cast.
As Winger brings an iceberg’s worth of submerged emotion in little screen time, “Rachel” lays out more more for its central players. As Paul, Bill Irwin turns in an impressively sensitive performance that never loses sight of his character’s sorrow. It will hardly be a surprise if the Academy takes notice of him, along with Hathaway in what is surely her breakout role. Even with much emotional weight on his hands, Demme clear plenty of room for his side players. Rachel’s dauntless hubby-to-be, Sidney (actor-musician Tunde Adebimpe), is a thing of pure charm. In a just world, more roles would be available to a fine African American actor like him. As Rachel, the able Rosemarie Dewitt never suffers next to such a fine, understated performance.
An especially delightful surprise comes from Sidney’s best man, Kieran. In the role, Mather Zickel plays a humorous charmer who throws just the right levity into a home haunted by the past. Kieran himself has his own demons, since he first meets Kym at an addiction counseling session. His charm shines right away, making him good for a nice-to-meet-you hump with Kym. But as the real Kym comes out, Kieran subtly pulls himself away, yet Zickel – usually a comic actor – never drops the presence that brings warmth to even the colder moments. (Has another supporting actor been as effective this year? Another question for the Academy to consider.)
As successful as this family drama is, Demme proves himself to be quite a multitasker. With the skill of an ethnographer and the passion of a sentimentalist, he celebrates the traditions of marriage in a handful of tender set pieces. Demme shows devotion and zeal when filming bands jamming out before memorable rehearsal dinner dedications. The approaching wedding is all the more celebratory, reminding viewers of how emotionally dynamic such events are. With multiple talents and attention to various perspectives, Demme tunes in to the anguish at the story’s heart without forgetting to celebrate the spirit and family behind it.