‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them’
Director: Ned Benson
Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy
3 (out of 5) Globes
You can’t talk about “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” without talking about how to see it. Concerning a young couple (Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy) who part ways after the never-explained death of their child, it’s a three-film saga that runs over five hours. It never needed to be that long, but not because five hours is a tough sit. It’s because one of them is superfluous — an experiment that’s pointless except as an easier sell to impatient moviegoers.
As it happens, that’s the one that hits theaters first (and, in some places, at all). “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” mashes what were two films — subtitled “Her” and “Him,” which follow, respectively, Chastain’s Beatles-song-named Eleanor and McAvoy’s Connor — into one traditional, easily digestible narrative. In the wake of their son's death — details of which we never learn — Eleanor finds herself inconsolably distraught. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, she informs Connor not only do they need indefinite time apart, she won't tell him where she's going. As she tries to start a new life (with, naturally, a new 'do), he flails about, sometimes trying to track her down, other times wondering how to move on himself.
“Them” didn’t exist until after “Her” and “Him” proved darlings at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It never needed to exist, which isn't to say it never should have been constructed. Each film gains much of its power from the intense subjectivity of trailing one character coping very differently with grief, not only over the death of a child but over the death of a relationship. (In part because neither character wants to discuss the former, the films wind up much more about a break-up than death.) There are few crossover scenes, but the ones that exist play differently. But the real draw is watching as two people struggle to move on with the glaring absence of someone they once, and in a way still, love.
We can discuss “Her” and “Him” in greater depth when they’re released in October, but having seen all three, we’d say the ideal way is to treat “Her” and “Him” as the definitive text, with “Them” as a curio. It's not its own thing so much as an experiment; it doesn't reimagine the material — it even starts the same way that "Him" does — but just cut it together. It's the experiment you see out of vague interest after you’ve imbibed the more radical (and successful) experiment that is “Her” and “Him.” The Weinstein Company has it backwards, so we’ll have to instead go into why “Them” is a good film that always could be better.
“Him” and “Her” work by being intentionally incomplete — by being close follows of characters who have trouble opening up and flailing as they try to either reinvent themselves or go back to where they were.Instead, “Them” feels unintentionally incomplete, especially if you’ve seen the hour-plus of minor but important footage gouged from the longer package. It’s a film of often seemingly small but expertly judged scenes that calmly observe as Eleanor and Connor struggle with the not always dramatically earthquaking problem of figuring themselves out.
“Her” and “Him” benefit from having blinders on. In “Her” we don’t see Connor till over a half hour in and have no idea what to make of him, even when he’s finally granted dialogue. Meanwhile in “Him,” Eleanor is mysterious, even distant and cold, making sporadic, unannounced cameo appearances in Connor’s life, which only serve — in his version of the story, anyway — to torture him. Here the mystique is gone; both characters are open to us, if not each other, and the whole thing feels closer to a normal if consistently well-written and –acted drama. Unslinking the Slinky doesn’t gain one better understanding of the Slinky; it just ruins a perfectly good Slinky.
“Them” mostly operates as a depository for excellent performances (and the more manageable length will certainly attract more DVD screener spins from jaded AMPAS members). Chastain has rarely been more elusive and mesmerizingly private; Eleanor doesn’t want anyone in, and Chastain is a master guardian of her character’s roiling inner life. (She’s also wickedly funny and playful, especially in scenes with her single mom sister, played by Jess Weixler.) McAvoy gets to emote more; he doesn’t know why his wife left him and is obsessed with trying to get some face time — not that he knows what he’ll say when/if such a meet-up happens. Connor is Eleanor’s opposite in a lot of ways — more open with his feelings, even if those feelings are of profound, sometimes weirdly amusing frustration, and this heavy drama gains much from having a lead male actor who’s great fun to watch getting flummoxed.
Benson’s script lays Eleanor and Connor's reversion to immaturity as well as the inter-generational business with the parents (who reflect some of their own problems) on a bit thick; the film is nearly as much about Eleanor and Connor’s parents — played by Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt (who's done the dead-kid-kills-a-marriage deal before in "The Accidental Tourist") on one side, and Ciaran Hinds on the other — as it is about Eleanor and Connor. Benson is good at hiding meaning in off-hand dialogue, though, and his calm style — which occasionally boils over into booming sad/triumphant music montages — helps make even scenes like a monologue Hurt has, concerning an incident with Eleanor as a baby, feel less like hand-holding for the audience and closer to genuinely off-the-cuff and therefore far more moving. Of course, there’s plenty more where that came from, in a project where more — as well as different — actually does equal more.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge