How much do you know about The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby? I’m willing to bet it will be a major factor the way you evaluate the first iteration of what I’m going to call this film project. And for the purposes of this review, I can do no more but assume you’ve kept up with some coverage of the movie, because that’s roughly my jumping off point. And if you haven’t here’s a summary to catch you up:
- This was originally two movies
- Those movies were called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her
- Those two versions of the film showed roughly the same series of events in a relationship between a man and a woman, Him showing the man’s perspective, Her showing the woman’s
- At first exhibition, Him and Her were shown back-to-back
- The version currently releasing in theaters is entitled Them, and combines portions of Him and Her along with some additional footage into something that’s more of the two-hour-audience-friendly sort of release than a 3+ hour double feature
With me so far?
And how does the project make the transition from one conception of it to another?
I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news.
The good news is that the brightest parts of this whole movie are the performances. It starts with James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain at the top billing, and goes right down to Bill Hader (In another dramatic role. Huh.), Viola Davis, William Hurt, and several other key members of the supporting cast. McAvoy and Chastain actually spend most of the movie apart, but the scenes they have together are absolute dynamite. Oh, and McAvoy is rocking a completely convincing American accent.
Even apart from one another, both actors are dynamic. They’re forced to be moody and morose most of the time, but there’s enough range within the scope of, “These are real people living real lives even if they’re sorta depressed,” that both are given space to shine. Chastain is particularly impressive in that she’s playing roughly the opposite of the hard-ass that Maya quickly became in Zero Dark Thirty.
There’s actually a comparison to be had with this movie and another release this week, The Skeleton Twins, one they almost invite with one another. They’re both about two people in close relationship, both dealing with depression; the key difference is that just as The Skeleton Twins focuses all its energy on relationships, The Disappearance of Elenor Rigby concerns itself almost wholly with the individuals in those relationships.
But performances on a scene-to-scene basis are going to be good just about any way you cut the movie together. What changes in creating the Them part of this project is the plot and pace of the story. This is where Them suffers badly for not being part of the original vision. Put bluntly, Them lacks almost any narrative momentum, or really for the most part, any narrative. McAvoy and Chastain as estranged spouses Connor and Eleanor are engaging to watch, but after the first half of the movie meanders on to nowhere in particular, you begin to wonder when the second half is going to pull something together. Spoiler alert: it never does.
This feels like a film saddled with too many plot points going in too many different directions; aside from the fact that it’s always about either Connor or Eleanor, there’s no shape in which the film seems to be cohering. But knowing the history of the project, you can see how it might be possible to build a narrative that actually held meaning if you could be limited to just one perspective. Viola Davis’s character, for example, only ever interacts with Eleanor, and feels like she ought to have been a larger presence. She crops up on three or four very memorable occasions, but when that’s scattered across two hours it doesn’t feel like enough time for her to grow as close to Eleanor as the two appear in their final scene together.
As a whole, the film continually speaks to the idea of moving forward, to not trying to latch on to one idea, one path, one notion of how life should be too voraciously. It talks about the difficulty of rolling with the punches while fighting for what’s important to you. That’s a valuable thematic message, but all of this feels too easily contained in a few scenes and doesn’t permeate plot. Said differently, although we’re shown a string of scenes that might each be important in their own right, the combination of the Him and Her perspectives seems more schizophrenic than revelatory, especially when we’re bouncing back and forth between scenes that only one of the main characters is a part of.
On the technical side of things, there’s also a little bit of a win-and-lose that seems like it could be a partial product of the Them amalgamation process. Beginning again with the positives, there’s quite a bit of pretty photography here. Nothing fancy exactly, although there is some nice steadicam usage from time to time, but very crisp and pleasant nonetheless. There’s even a fun bit of blue overtone for Connor, orange for Eleanor to the way the picture is colorerd that’s subtle enough that it only became annoying during one scene. That being said, it certainly seems as though a more singular vision for this film might have spiced up a shot selection that’s downright boring at times. Multiple times throughout the movie, I found myself staring at a very basic shot/reverse shot that cut back and forth, often more quickly than the tone of the scene called for, every time someone spoke. Again, this feels like it might be an artifact of trying to capture two separate perspectives in the same scene rather than laying out a single unified “voice.”
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
I enjoyed The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them because the relationship between the main characters is beautifully authentic and the acting, both from the leads and from the supporting cast, is positively top notch. At the same time, Them is inescapably long and aimless, and suffers badly from multiple ending syndrome made worse by the fact that the endings have little to no emotional punch. In the attempt to render two voices in concert where they were only ever intended to play call and answer, the film has done a disservice to both. I cannot wait for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her/Him, which is the back-to-back screening that was originally on display at festivals, when it comes around to New York and Los Angeles on October 10th. If you don’t happen to be in one of those locales, there’s still some amount of good movie to be found in Them, but it’ll be hard not to think you’re being cheated out of something much better.