When we first meet Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy, "X-Men: Days of Future Past") and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain, "Zero Dark Thirty") they're obviously, deliriously in love. One scene and jump in time later and something unexpectedly awful happens and Conor, whom we learn is now El's husband, is determined to find the wife he once knew in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."
Writer/director Ned Benson has recut his feature debut pair of films, "Him" and "Her," that provided two perspectives of a relationship undergoing incredible stress into a third, more traditional version that allows us a view of both sides at once. The film is an insightful exploration of a relationship that, no matter how strong, consists of two separate people whose life experiences cause them to relate and react to things in ways that may not be understood by their partner and how difficult an obstacle a tragic event can be when these reactions are at their most extreme. Benson's writing never feels anything but honest down to its smallest details and his exceptional cast is one of the best ensembles of the year.
Benson's story is linear, but gives the impression of looking back as we put together the pieces of how this relationship came together, then splintered. Eleanor retreats to the family homestead in Westport, leaving no trace behind for Conor. Her family treat her like a fragile creature. Mom Mary (Isabelle Huppert, "Abuse of Weakness," "Amour") removes a family photo from the wall, leaving a blank space, and encourages her daughter to move on, finish schooling, go to Paris. Psychiatrist NYU professor dad (William Hurt, "Into the Wild") has difficulty trying to help himself, and so contacts colleagues, one of whom is rejected, the other of whom, the initially brusque Professor Friedman (Viola Davis, "The Help"), begrudgingly accepts El into her class and becomes a true friend, perhaps because she can only intuit what El has one through. El cuts her hair and enjoys the company of younger sister Katy (Jess Weixler, "Teeth," "The Face of Love"). Mom hangs up when her son-in-law calls from he city, asking if her daughter's staying there. In her old bedroom hangs a poster for "A Man and a Woman," a constant reminder of everything she's trying to forget.
Back in New York City, Conor's dealing with a failing restaurant, living with the successful restaurateur dad (Ciarán Hinds, "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy") he's tried to forge a separate path from. But his focus is on finding his wife and saving his relationship. When his best friend (and chef) Stuart (ex-SNLer Bill Hader) runs into El on a city street, he's able to point Conor in her general direction and Conor begins to stalk her, finally approaching her with a passed note in her class. She's furious, wants nothing to do with him, and yet something happens which allows us to see that her love for him is not entirely extinguished.
McAvoy is incredible here, an aching wound, struggling to understand why his wife has cut herself off from him. His impending business failure exacerbates his flailing, becoming aggressive with a customer, blunt about the talents of his best friend. And yet we can always see the true romantic revealed in that opening scene (one which foreshadows his and El's next meeting in the film). Chastain has a more difficult role as she refuses to discuss the tragedy which separated them (ironically, it was the reverse problem which led to Eleanor's disappearance) and has less contact with the outside world. Instead we get glimpses into her character by how she deals with family members, reading between the lines. The two together create such a bond, even in antagonistic scenes, they are cinematic soul mates.
Because of the nature of what Benson succeeds in achieving here, each supporting role is an important link to one of the two leads and every one of these actors contributes enormously. Hurt has an incredible moment near film's end when he tells Eleanor about something that happened when she was only two, a story he's never told anyone so shaken was he by the experience (and Benson's lovely writing makes it a parallel to Eleanor's own story). Huppert, whose Mary still enjoys romantic moments with her husband, is nonetheless very different. The actress chugs wine throughout the film, an attempt to dull personal disappointment, yet is outspoken with her daughter. She's a complex character, she and Hurt deserving of their own spinoff (the Rigbys met at a rumored Beatles reunion in NYC, leading to their daughter's curious name). Davis is phenomenal, a hardened exterior protecting inner hurt that allows her to intuit the pain of her reticent student. Hader also surprises, his Stuart attempting support of his friend and admitting defeat, yet it is clear his irreverent presence helps. Nina Arianda ("Rob the Mob") plays Conor's bartender who offers a more selfish form of comfort. Hinds at first embodies Spencer the way Conor views him, a bit cold and selfish, but gradually reveals more until he gets his own father speech which allows us to see that Conor's more like him than Conor would care to admit and that that is not necessarily a bad thing.
The production paints a refreshingly realistic view of New York City, one in which apartments are cramped and neighborhoods evolving. Conor lives in a world of night while El is mostly seen in light. Music is another distinguing factor, the car radio a source of affectionate combat for El and Conor and romance and solitude respectively for their parents.
The Weinstein Company plans on releasing Benson's original "Him" and Her" films one month after this "Them" edit. Benson's rejiggered film is so strong, I look forward to spending more time with his beautifully crafted characters.
I was expecting a change in tone when presented with the original separate point of view films, but that turns out not to be the case. "Them" is noticably closer to "Her," the "Him" segment of the film offering more in the way of unseen footage. We see more parallels between Eleanor and Conor's stories (Eleanor and her sister grapple on the floor just as Conor and Stuart do), lines spoken by one in "Her" are spoken by the other in "Him," deepening the memory element of Eleanor's speech in the couple's apartment, the endings are slightly, yet intriguingly different. The musical themes come through more potently in the longer version. It's unfortunate that The Weinstein Company decided on this staggered release pattern - if they had to have their recut "Them," perhaps they should have released both versions at the same time and allow viewers to decide how much time to invest ("Them" runs 123 minutes, "Her/Him" 195). Having seen both, I would definitely opt for the longer, richer cut, although "Them" does retain its essence.
Robin gives "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" a B-.
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