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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them Movie Review

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014) movie poster The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

Theatrical Release: September 12, 2014 / Running Time: 122 Minutes / Rating: R

Writer/Director: Ned Benson

Cast: Jessica Chastain (Eleanor Rigby), James McAvoy (Conor Ludlow), Nina Arianda (Alexis), Viola Davis (Professor Lillian Friedman), Bill Hader (Stuart), Ciarán Hinds (Spencer Ludlow), Isabelle Huppert (Mary Rigby), William Hurt (Julian Rigby), Jess Weixler (Katy Rigby), Nikki M. James (Sia), Jeremy Shamos (Evangelist)


Writer-director Ned Benson has made an unusual feature debut, consisting of three different films telling the same story from different perspectives. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is the version that The Weinstein Company is releasing first and probably widest. However, this two-hour cut, which first screened at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival,
offers what may be a fundamentally different experience from the other installments of this trilogy conceived as a single film: the movies subtitled Him and Her, which both premiered at 2013's Toronto Film Festival and are scheduled to be released to US theaters in mid-October.

Them presumably gives us a little bit of Him and a little bit of Her, presenting the messy dissolution of a young New York married couple from both parties' perspectives. We open with Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) performing a spontaneous dine and dash, for neither has money for the meal they just ate. The two escape the restaurant and collect themselves on the grass of a park.

This ends up being one of our few glimpses at the couple's happiness. The next scene finds Eleanor jumping from a bridge into water. Seemingly more a cry for help than an actual suicide attempt, she survives but severs ties with her husband and moves back into the spacious Connecticut home of her affluent parents, a French singer (Isabelle Huppert) and an American professor (William Hurt), and librarian younger sister (Jess Weixler). Eleanor cuts her hair, cancels her cell phone, and has her mother keep Conor at a distance.

Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) cuddle up in a New York City park following a dine and dash.

The source of the couple's acrimony is never clear, but it certainly seems connected to the death of their infant son, an incident that looms heavily over the proceedings without ever being clarified. Now, Conor, who owns a struggling restaurant in lower Manhattan, begins to harmlessly "stalk" Eleanor, who has begun taking a class at Cooper Union on her father's referral. The class itself seems dull, but the professor (Viola Davis) connects with her as a personal mentor.

Neither Conor nor Eleanor knows where to go from here. The two maintain strong feelings, not all positive, about one another. Eleanor wants to move on and Conor doesn't, until he might be ready and she isn't. The two are privately grieving the love that seems to have greatly diminished, if not quite died, with their son.

A first feature has got to be challenging enough when your longest previous effort ran 20 minutes. Adding considerable pressure to Benson's debut is the talented cast of serious actors and potential award winners rounded up, seemingly through Chastain, who starred in the director's last short and makes her feature producing debut here. On top of that, there are the expectations that come from being acquired by The Weinstein Company, playing at Cannes, and getting assigned a fall release date. At least, Disappearance is being asked more to kick off film's award season than to cap it off with a confident Christmas Day opening. That is a more reasonable task to place on this film, which is a promising debut but not too much more than that.

Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) reconnect at his bar in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."

Disappearance is an actors' film and everyone assembled here gets a chance to do some big, important, emotional work. Chastain gets the most screentime, perhaps understandably, since Her supposedly runs 11 minutes longer than Him. A complete unknown four years ago, the actress quickly rose to the top of Hollywood's talent list with a 2011 unlike anything ever seen from an emerging newcomer.
After that banner year established her with roles in five acclaimed films including two Best Picture nominees and a loss in the Supporting Actress Oscar category to her The Help co-star Octavia Spencer, Chastain likely was Jennifer Lawrence's Lead Actress runner-up the next year for Zero Dark Thirty. Chastain's career has inevitably slowed a little, but the Disappearance series is just one of four projects that are expected to at least feature in 2014's award season conversations.

Chastain is great in the lead, but she's not the most overdue of this year's potential contenders (that would be Amy Adams, five times an Oscar night bridesmaid, potentially becoming a bride). Generally, Lead Actress nominations go to performances that carry a film and Chastain isn't asked to do that here. Everyone she shares the screen with holds their own, especially McAvoy, sporting a flawless American accent. Some people are still peeved that he wasn't Oscar-nominated for Atonement, despite the widespread recognition that film earned. This movie probably won't yield major accolades for McAvoy but it does showcase his abilities as few recent films have.

That neither lead stands out is more a testament to the strength of the supporting cast, who all seize their moments to shine, from Ciarán Hinds as Conor's emotionally distant, thrice-divorced successful restaurateur father to Hurt and Huppert as the portrait of an enduring marriage to Weixler and Bill Hader, whose respective single mother and chef characters seem to have wandered in from an entirely different romantic comedy. We can thank the romantic comedy genre for Eleanor Rigby compelling as much as it does. Slow, methodical, and gloomy most of the time, the film is heart-breaking and raw, but at least it's realistic and unpredictable. It's not the usual spoon-fed path to uniting characters who are at odds. We are not sure if Conor and Eleanor will get back together and not even sure if they should. But there's something to be gained from spending time with these complex adults and getting a taste of their pain and all too brief pleasure.

I suspect that The Weinstein Company will position this edit as the definitive version of the film, while relegating Him and Her to highly limited release and presumably bonus feature status somewhere down the line. A studio that specializes in winning awards must want to minimize voter confusion; imagine if Chastain's performances in Her and Them have to compete against each other. Nonetheless, there is already chatter that the subsequent two companion films are Benson's preferred way of experiencing this story, which certainly would be far from the first time that the Weinsteins' distribution methods have been questioned.

Related Reviews:
Jessica Chastain: The HelpTake ShelterThe Tree of LifeZero Dark ThirtyLawlessMamaCoriolanus
James McAvoy: The ConspiratorBecoming JaneThe Last StationX-Men: First Class
William Hurt: Winter's TaleTuck EverlastingBroadcast News | Isabelle Huppert: AmourHeaven's Gate
Viola Davis: DoubtPrisonersBeautiful CreaturesEat Pray LoveExtremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Ciarán Hinds: Margot at the Wedding | Jess Weixler: Somebody Up There Likes Me | Nina Arianda: Rob the Mob
Blue ValentineBoyhoodThe Drop | Bill Hader: Adventureland

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Reviewed September 19, 2014.

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