(A quick aside before I begin my actual review. Two main points. One, I watched this film in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It is now the wee hours of Thursday morning, and I’ve only just now had the chance to write this review. I’ve had to work many more hours this week than I had originally intended, and I stupidly kept putting off writing this review. So, I apologize if it is not my most well-written piece because this excellent film deserved a proper review. Second, we’re on a bit of a hot streak here on my blog. For this particular 50 film set, of which there are only 13 or so films left to watch, I’ve only given away 5 “A”s, counting the movie I’m about to review. And four of those five have been within my last ten reviews. So, it’s been a good time for me to write about the films I’m watching because otherwise this particular set has been mostly underwhelming to mediocre.)
There are two types of “sad” films. There are films that are sad because there is virtually no other way to approach their subject matter. These films involve genocide (Schindler’s List), terminal cancer (One True Thing), or the death of children. Other films are sad because they present truths about life and the human condition that we would rather ignore or look past. Synecdoche, New York is almost overwhelmingly depression for a variety of reasons, but perhaps, the most clear reason is the way it forces viewers to face their own mortality and the ultimate meaninglessness of our lives. A Single Man‘s portrayal of loneliness, isolation, and desperation are truly haunting, and I could tick off dozens of other films that I’ve reviewed that are overwhelmingly sad without being melodramatic about it. 1968’s Rachel, Rachel is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen that falls into this latter category.
It’s rather shocking that I find Rachel, Rachel as moving and soul-crushing as I do because I am clearly not the film’s target audience, and Paul Newman’s (The Color of Money) directorial debut does not seem like an easy candidate for a film that would age particularly well. A movie that is very much the product of its late 1960s heritage as well as the obvious political sympathies of Paul Newman, Rachel, Rachel should, by all counts, come off as terribly naive and dated. It doesn’t; it doesn’t in the slightest. Never has the existential dread that comes from being stuck in a small town and controlled by the not necessarily malevolent but rarely benign machinations of others been so well-displayed. If you have ever felt lonely or like your life is rushing by with you as a mere observer, the powerful portrait that Rachel, Rachel paints may be overwhelming. It was for me.
Rachel Cameron (Joanne Woodward) is a 35 year old schoolteacher that lives under the thumb of her overbearing mother. A virgin with absolutely no excitement in life, Rachel’s quickly approaching middle age and knows she has nothing to show for it. The summer is approaching and when Rachel isn’t turning down invitations for social activity from her best friend, Calla (Estelle Parsons), or dinner invitations from her school principal, she’s dreading the end of the school year because she knows it means she will have nothing to do but pass the time at home with her widowed mother, making sandwiches and running errands and having no life of her own. It isn’t until Rachel meets a man from her childhood that she begins to make any decisions for herself, though her affair with the rakish Nick (James Olsen) proves to be anything but a fairytale romance.
Easily, part of the reason why I thought I would find this film unappealing based on Netflix’s barely accurate plot description was that it is almost the archetype for countless, lesser films that followed. These are films that follow “wound tight woman learns to live when she meets a gregarious and young suitor with a true joie de vivre.” That’s more or less an entire subgenre of romantic dramas/comedies. What the other films fail to capture is the unerring vision of reality that Rachel, Rachel exudes in every scene (though it also indulges in the fantasies of the heroine but those are usually used for subversive reasons). Rachel, Rachel is a dark and unyielding look into the life of a woman whose path has been decided without her say from the start, and she may have reached the point where it’s too late to fix things. Any optimism in the film is tempered with healthy doses of unvarnished suffering, not just from Rachel but from nearly every person around her.
But, as insightful as the writing is, what truly makes Rachel, Rachel an under-appreciated and now obscure classic (but a classic nonetheless) is the frighteningly fierce and heartbreaking performance from Joanne Woodward. Without her, this film isn’t half as good as it is. With every line of her face and subtlety of expression or gesture, you feel the immense pain and sorrow that has totally consumed Rachel’s life. With the exception of Synecdoche‘s Caden Cotard, I’m not sure if I can think of a film character who seems so totally miserable, but in a way that’s relatable to anyone who has ever struggled with depression. And when Rachel lets her guard down, Woodward ensures that the audience knows how difficult this is for her (and the writing makes it clear that opening herself up to Nick is a mistake). It is a truly masterful performance and it’s a shame that it hasn’t become iconic of powerful female acting.
As I said earlier, I watched this nearly four days ago now so I’ll draw this review to a close. I feel like if I write any more, I’ll just muddle what I’ve already said. My recommendation for Rachel, Rachel is as simple as this. If, in your life, you have ever experienced the intense pangs of loneliness or isolation or existential desperation, Rachel, Rachel has the potential to become a profoundly moving experience. Though I did not cry any during the film, the sadness I felt during this film wasn’t of the crying variety. It was of a powerfully drawn picture of a spectrum of the human condition that most cinema would rather avoid. If you like your films with window dressing that obscures the sadder realities of life, Rachel, Rachel will not be your cup of tea. But, if you can brave its stormy thematic waters, you will discover a haunting and spiritually piercing film.
Final Score: A