The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby makes for the most unique moviegoing experience of 2014. This is an inescapable peculiarity since if you attend the picture as it opens this weekend, also known as The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, it will inevitably be a different experience from those who saw the movie last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, or your co-worker who catches a screening next month after October 10th when it becomes The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her.
Stitched together from the remains of two other movies, Him and Her (which I have not seen), Them is the brainchild of The Weinstein Company, which purchased the U.S. distribution rights last year. Once the novel idea of filming two complementary, but separate, films about the same ill-fated couple and their distinct perspectives, Eleanor Rigby has unexpectedly been melded into a cohesive whole. The most surprising thing about this entire process is that even as a post-production editing experiment, the movie plays wonderfully for most of its running time.
The real strength lies in the much buzzed about performances of its two stars, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, who are are indeed fantastic. Working from first time writer-and-director Ned Benson’s script, both evoke fully drawn characters that map out the varying depths of a truly universal isolation and sadness.
Refreshingly avoiding heavy exposition, Eleanor Rigby spends little time explaining why after a time-jump from an opening scene of Conor Ludlow (McAvoy) and the titular “Elle” (Chastain) on their first date that Eleanor then chooses to throw herself off the Manhattan Bridge some years later. The movie isn’t hiding the fact that these two were married and lost a son to some unforeseen circumstance; it is just choosing to let the audience be enveloped in the visceral scale of grief without explaining it (unless that occurs in a different cut).
Apparently, Eleanor and Conor were once in love as a young, happily married New York couple until an unbearable tragedy led to Eleanor’s jump, followed by her disappearance…to her parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) in Connecticut to be exact. Sharing few actual scenes together from that moment on, both protagonists internalize their grief separately: Conor lunges himself into his work as a bar owner with aspirations of differentiating his identity from his father, an impeccable Ciarián Hinds as the proprietor of a far more upscale establishment, and Eleanor returns to a college life she abandoned once upon a time to be a mother.
As paths that rarely converge, which likely plays all the more intriguingly in the separate double feature of Him and Her, each star displays masterful work as the laughing and crying coin-sides of despair. McAvoy brings his gregarious charm that makes the Scottish actor immediately ingratiating in this role, but it’s a ruse and a façade for a pain that can only crack through in his scenes with Chastain.
Those fleeting sequences are the highlight of a movie that’s enhanced by its dual nature. Essentially two separate stories with different supporting casts, it is a crossover of remorse and lost-love when the two actors share the screen. It is also gratifying for the film since Chastain’s Elle gets the more satisfying story arc. This daughter of two avid Beatles fans is a lost child that her favorite professor (formidable Viola Davis) describes as a victim of “the generation of too many choices.” Indeed, it could be even inferred with the way in which both Eleanor and Conor go “running for the hills” (father Rigby’s words), or rather for their parents, that generational misery is the root cause of such choices. What are the odds for a happy life with a name like Eleanor Rigby, really?
However, such possibilities are mostly skirted for Benson’s first feature. The film instead prefers to mainly rely on the acting and an authentically morose New York to justify this romance’s existential crisis. Even during the few flashbacks of a once happy Conor and Elle, there is a sense of disquieted unease to the shadowy corners of their version of Gotham. This prevailing ambiance and the rest of the impressive supporting cast do wonders in elevating a film that does feature a top-heavy narrative.
Being unable to judge how Them plays in comparison to the other two cuts of this film, the rotating perspectives can be a unique approach to the “New York character drama romance” subgenre, but it does rob the movie of a certain smoothness. Possibly the result of this being the filmmaker’s first feature or simply the aftermath of certain story threads and scenes needing to be truncated for this singular 122-minute version of Rigby, the film sometimes feels uneven and rough around the edges. Several tour de force performances minimize these issues, but the lack of forward motion causes the film to feel at times like it is adrift in its wistful agony.
But once again, the cast of characters fortunately reduces these concerns since every supporting player brings a weighty credibility to their part. The aforementioned Hurt, Huppert, and Davis are empathetic guiding forces in Eleanor’s life. Meanwhile on Conor’s side of things, Hinds gives an understated stoicism to his own beckoning future for McAvoy’s fading smile, and the curveball casting of Bill Hader as Conor’s chef and best friend is especially unforeseen in a role far more dramatic than initially expected.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is such a rich tapestry of heartache and emotional longing from all walks of life that it does in fact live up to the hefty pedigree of its namesake. To look at these lonely people is not only a lamentation; it’s a remarkable debut for a writer-and-director with a cast at the top of its game that leaves you wanting to explore the fuller components left on the cutting room floor.