The notion of there being two sides to every story isn’t a new one. And Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them isn’t the first film to explore the two perspectives of a couple, even more so if the duo is in turmoil. Right from the start The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them sets the table as the titular Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and her husband, Conor (James McAvoy), appear to be a perfect couple doing the casual fine-dining thing in a swank New York eatery when they decide to up and split on the bill. It’s not that they can’t afford din-din, it’s just their united expression of freedom, frolic, and a strange sense of foreplay. The scene is short and sweet, then in the next scene, and at some future time, we catch Eleanor (so named affectionately after the Beatles’ song) walking her bike across a bridge. She’s despondent and troubled, and, in a flash, she’s over the rail. It’s a strong visual juxtaposition of how relationships can change, almost seemingly at the drop of a hat.
The effects of the suicide attempt (and that’s no spoiler as it comes in the first few frames) spiral outward in ways that divide and redirect in sudden and sometimes, seemingly indignant directions. Eleanor hurts others as much as she hurts inside. Following the failed suicide, triggered by the death of their son — an event buried deep away from the main narrative but ever looming — Eleanor takes up recovery at her parents’ modest, yet stately Connecticut home. When her parents (played by William Hurt and the ever-exquisite Isabelle Huppert) ask what they can do to help, Eleanor responds that she doesn’t know. She’s not being coy and doesn’t necessarily want to be left alone, but Eleanor is genuinely at a loss as to what is next in her life. The one certainty, however, is that Conor is too close a reminder of what happened and Eleanor blames him to some degree for the way in which he tried to callously move on after the loss of their son (putting the child’s belongings in the closet and ordering Chinese). And so, he is left in the dark as to her whereabouts.
The film’s pronoun qualifier, Them is symbolic mostly in the packaging of Benson’s directorial debut — which more aptly could be tagged a debut trilogy. Last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, he introduced two other Rigby versions, Him and Her (not to be confused with the recent Scar-Jo, Joaquin Phoenix, and Spike Jonze collaboration), telling the same story of pain, love, and hopeful reconciliation from the players’ different POVs. I have not seen either of those other Rigby versions and cannot comment on how they all work together as a collective “we,” but I can attest that Them, which according to reports was the Weinstein Company’s idea, works seamlessly and poignantly on its own two feet.
The “disappearance” of the title too, like the protuberant pronoun, is a loaded and multi-faceted term depending on how it’s applied and from whose perspective it’s coming from. Conor can’t physically find his wife, Eleanor’s parent can’t find the vestige of the little girl they raised, and Eleanor herself is at an ambiguous crossroads, lost in herself. Things do ultimately shift and take form. Eleanor enrolls in a class in the city — her fast-food noshing sessions with her professor (Viola Davis) are leaden with stark revelation and sardonic sincerity — while Conor struggles to keep his gastro-bar afloat and deal with the specter of his father (Ciaran Hinds), a philandering restaurateur whose clientele are Hollywood A-Listers.
Much of the film’s onus — and the engine of its success — falls on Chastain. Her Eleanor is both broken and fragile, yet simultaneously steely and aloof, a piquant offset. Chastain hasn’t necessarily demonstrated great range as of yet, but her presence in the films she’s been in — take her ethereal otherness in The Tree of Life or dogged resolve in Zero Dark Thirty — have embossed and elevated those endeavors. McAvoy on the other hand, is adequate, buoyed by wide-eyed idealism and valveless adoring love, but he isn’t as essential. He’s simply the other half of the marriage equation, which is ultimately more about her than him.
If there’s any weak link to Rigby, it’s Bill Hader as Conor’s business partner. It’s almost as if Hader is doing an SNL skit while the other supporting players’ acting is infinitely deeper. Hader’s role doesn’t help him either, considering it’s a thin one to begin with. The casting otherwise is lethally spot on.
The paths Eleanor and Conor choose and their emotional comport in the wake of tragedy furl with frenetic energy and provide for introspective reflection. In other incarnations — and other hands — Rigby could have been rolled up a maudlin, Hallmark exercise, but what Benson has achieved is a haunting slow-burn that lingers.