At the very least, Ned Benson’s two-part debut feature The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her was an interesting experiment. The two films worked in parallel, providing an in-depth look into both the husband and wife as they struggled with the loss of their child and consequent separation. With Them Benson provides what is essentially a super cut of the two films, giving the audience a more digestible product and focusing on the couple’s relationship, rather than the more detailed character studies of Him and Her.
While Them is certainly a more accessible experience, it immediately takes away what is most interesting about the project and very nearly neuters what is the core conflict of the story: their absence from each other. Having lost what was special about the previous incarnations of the film, what’s left over is simply not enough to sail you through the film’s ocean of uninspired angst. Undeniably, there are interesting themes and commendable performances on display, but the fact of the matter is there just isn’t enough material here for a movie (let alone three).
Under the weight of losing their child, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor’s (James McAvoy) marriage began to deteriorate, culminating in Eleanor up and leaving. Conor is left trying to make a life for himself by running an unsuccessful bar with his friend Stuart (Bill Hader), while Eleanor returns home to her parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) to recalibrate and figure out her next steps. Rushing through this setup, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them takes us on a journey through the limbo of their separation, showcasing the challenges of them being apart and their inability to make work the love they once had.
The rapid first act is both a blessing and a curse for the film. Them opens by treating us to one of its warmest scenes, giving us a glance at Conor and Eleanor in the carefree and happy days of their relationship. This is quickly contrasted by jumping forward to an (initially) ambiguous snapshot of Eleanor’s depression and again to their current solitude. This allows us to dive straight into the meat of the film and adds an air of mystery to the characters and their tale. It’s not too long before the audience learns what has happened, but putting the pieces together works well to keep you interested through the early parts of this journey and compliments the very natural feeling the film strives for. The flipside, of course, is that throwing the audience is disorientating, making it unclear at what point the film finally settles on a status quo. More problematic still, is that by jumping from adoring couple to broken marriage so swiftly and without context, the audience isn’t able to make sense of how long they’ve been apart – or what the impact of that is, which pretty well disarms the film emotionally.
This would be a forgivable stumble in Him or Her, where their isolation from each other could be explored by concentrating on one character’s perspective. But here we jump between their stories and watch them bump into each other time and again, reducing the titular disappearance to what feels like a rough couple of days. Perhaps worse, is that the their lives apart are almost entirely a bore to behold. McAvoy and Chastain’s chemistry and the history their characters share breathe life into their scenes together, but it’s hard not to look down at your watch in all the time we spend going through the motions of their individual lives.
While there is some bite to the underlying angst in Eleanor’s world, watching an adult flitter about her parent’s house without direction or purpose is hardly the most compelling subject for a film. While the grounded approach the film chooses to take is admirable, this is too dry a slice of life to stomach. Huppert and Hurt do lend some presence to this section of the story, but even they are beaten down by bland musings and occasionally saccharin dialogue. Conor’s world is at least a little more exciting by virtue of his story seeing him actually try to accomplish something by keeping his dying business afloat. The shadow of his father’s success in the industry and his rocky relationship with his father sprinkle a bit of flavour on the Him side of the coin, but before too long you realise Benson is really just going through the motions to create conflict, and it becomes apparent it’s all just in service of distracting from the core plot.
The best thing Them has going for it is the sense of authenticity this meditative tale provides. The odd bits of overly written dialogue aside, the film feels incredibly, often painfully, real. But the sad truth is that it simply does not a movie make. Though it’s a creative decision not at all without merit, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them opts to have its only major event occur off script and hinges on being a very human character study. Even with actors as fine as Chastain and McAvoy taking us along for the ride, it’s hard to imagine them winning the audience over when they are given so little to do. You can’t really fault the film’s moment-to-moment craft or the strong performances scattered throughout, but for a movie that spends 2 hours talking about love and loss, it really doesn’t have a damn thing to say.
THE REEL WORD: 5/10