When first-time director Ned Benson debuted his two-picture film experience, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, it made a lot of waves for being a unique and encompassing look at the well-worn relationship drama genre. The movie is actually two features – Him and Her – examining the complicated relationship between a man (James McAvoy) and a woman (Jessica Chastain) from each individual’s personal perspective. It is a super ambitious project to pull off, but The Weinstein Company – Eleanor Rigby’s distributor – has never seen a movie it didn’t want to cut, so before the film comes out the way Benson intended, we are first getting a more objective mash-up, known as Them.
The plot is pretty thin: a married couple – Eleanor (Chastain) and Connor (McAvoy) – find their relationship fundamentally strained after a very sad event occurs. Both parties cope in different ways; Connor runs from his emotions, while Eleanor wallows in them. Neither mechanism is entirely effective, so each character soon find him or herself trapped in an existential daze, without their closest ally to pull them out.
Part of my experience watching the film is probably colored by my knowledge of Benson’s original conceit. I don’t know how I would have responded to the film if I had no foreknowledge of the way Benson shot the film from two different perspective, often with two different versions of key scenes. And despite knowing that Them was a compilation, I still expected a little of that perspective shifting to exist in the omniscient version. I was wrong.
In the absence of Benson’s vision, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is your standard relationship drama – totally generic save the performances. Chastain is a superb talent, so she totally sells the film, even in its more melodramatic moments. McAvoy is slightly less convincing, and a huge part of that is due to the American accent he is trying to force throughout the film. Every other line you’ll hear his Scottish brogue poke through, and it is pretty distracting.
Benson assembles an excellent supporting cast to back up his leads, including William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor’s parents, Ciarán Hinds as Connor’s dad, and Viola Davis as a professor and confidant for Eleanor. Each actor is given some really strong moments to play, but all of them (especially Davis, who is excellent) feel undeserved by this truncated piece of Benson’s overall puzzle.
Ultimately that is the main problem with this film. In an Q&A after the movie, Benson identified Them as the natural final third of his film that he didn’t even realize was necessary until he cut it together. I’m glad he is able to rationalize this obvious artistic compromise in that way, but that is not at all how the film comes across. It feels like a shallow summary at times, and obviously a lot of his directorial choices in terms of production design and cinematography and tone had to be sacrificed to create this version of the film. Hearing Benson talk about Her and Him still makes me want to see them, because they sound like two very different films about the same situation, but I really regret having seen Them at all.
If you have only a glancing interest in this type of movie, I do recommend The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. You’ll get a well-acted movie that will probably make you feel something. But if you are looking for more from the medium, skip this one. Him and Her open in New York and LA in October. I’ll be there. Probably. If I get the bad taste from this one out of my mouth.