Detective story

I realize it’s been more than a year since the release of “Rachel getting Married”, but I just now got around to seeing it, so for the first time I feel qualified to talk about this remarkable film. If you haven’t seen it, you probably know it as that movie where Anne Hathaway plays a slightly crazy sister of the bride whose presence almost derails a wedding. At least that’s the way it’s generally billed. But having seen it, I was pleasantly surprised to discover something far more — a first-rate detective story.

At the core of it all is the brilliant screenplay by Jenny Lumet, without which the wonderful direction of Jonathan Demme, or the performances in a stellar cast led by Anne Hathaway (whose performance deservedly won a gazillion awards) would have come to naught.

All great detective stories are built from two essential elements: The obvious secret, and the secret nobody knows (and which the detective must discover). Think of the Maltese Falcon. There is the secret of the bird itself — obvious and not all that interesting. But then there is the secret of the betrayal, the real core of the mystery. The key moment of Hammett’s novel occurs when Sam Spade uncovers the true killer of his partner, and must make the hard decisions that come from that bitter knowledge.

Likewise “Rachel getting Married” is a detective story with two secrets. The first one — the obvious one — is a family tragedy, a secret that everyone knows but nobody dares discuss. What makes this story interesting is that our stalwart detective, our Miss Marple and Sherlock Holmes all rolled into one, is a fragile and narcissistic former junky, a jittery wreck of a refugee from rehab. On a superficial level we are led to assume she is the nearest thing there is to a villian of the piece. But Demme makes sure, with every brilliant close-up and framing shot of his handheld camera, that we know that this character is not our bad guy, no matter how thoroughly she and everyone else on screen may believe she is.

And so the mystery is set up. Something has happened here, a chain of events from which a tragedy was set into motion, a tragedy for which the detective herself long ago took the fall and suffered the consequences. And right under our noses, without our being consciously aware of it, we watch as the detective sets out to solve the deeper mystery, the secret never before revealed, the one that really counts.

It all culminates in a brief scene late in the film of such unexpected emotional violence and feral intensity that it might seem like melodrama, except for the fact that it is in fact the key scene of the film, the pivot point, the moment that everything has been leading up to — the moment when the detective unmasks the killer.

What’s fun about this film is that we don’t expect things to turn out the way they do — heck, for much of the length of the film we may not even realize we are witnessing a detective story. Jenny Lumet is way ahead of us every step of the way, and Anne Hathaway, in her brilliant performance, is right there with her.

Sam Spade, it’s time to move over.

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