Here in upstate New York, where the lack of “art-house” cinemas is as apparent as the onset of global warming, only one theatre (Spectrum 8, the solar-powered gem of Albany’s crown) is showing The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and even then, only Them, which essentially amounts to one gigantic fused sentence, considering that the film is a combined edit of two separate films – Her and Him – in which Jessica Chastain separately plays the title character and the same character through the eyes of her estranged husband, Connor (James McAvoy). Scripter/director Ned Benson and editor Kristina Boden had something of an uphill march here: reconciling these two versions of the same character and story, all the while keeping an unspoken conflict at the center of a slow-burning drama.
The film pulls a Hills Like White Elephants early. The opening scenes depict the young Eleanor and Connor performing vintage Carefree Young Couple Antics, such as escaping an expensive restaurant without paying, and having sex on the reclined passenger seat of their car whilst lovingly joking around. This scene is juxtaposed with one from the present, several years into their marriage, whereupon a green-faced Eleanor bikes along one of those unidentifiable-to-me NYC bridges and then throws herself over the side. A rescue crew saves her, but we soon see her move back into her parents’ house in suburban Connecticut with a near-catatonic personality. None of her family members – sister Katy (Jess Weixler), mother Mary (Isabelle Huppert), and father Julian (William Hurt) – know how to address her, or even what to talk to her about. Connor is not involved. We do not know what happened to make Eleanor try to end her own life, nor what has separated the couple. The film goes to great lengths to hide this information, going so far as to have Eleanor pause as she spots a certain photo (unseen by us) on the wall leading up to her old bedroom, which is then frantically torn down and hidden by Mary and Katy. Fortunately, the narrative up to this point seems deliberate enough that the picture becomes a sort of Chekhov’s Photograph (i.e. there’s no worry that we won’t get to see what it is eventually).
Lost for something fulfilling to do, Eleanor decides to take some classes, having never finished her college degree. In the meantime, Connor, who runs his own tiny dive bar, is having trouble paying the rent for the couple’s joint apartment by himself, and is forced to move back in with his father (Ciarán Hinds), with whom he has an oil-and-water relationship due to the latter not being much of a parent. When he’s not either quibbling with his father or lamenting the state of things with archetypal buddy character Stuart (Bill Hader), Connor clandestinely follows Eleanor around after spotting her on the street. Why can’t he talk to her? We don’t know. One day, he follows her to a class taught by Professor Lillian Friedman (Viola Davis) – an icy, no-bullshit educator whose class Eleanor talks her way into by evoking the unrealistic Student-Outsmarts-Professor-with-Clever-Comment-and-Instantly-Achieves-Peer-Status trope – and passes her a note, as if he’s trying to meet her for the first time. She wants nothing to do with him.
Eventually, the source of the conflict is implicitly revealed in a conversation between Eleanor and Julian: Eleanor and Connor had a baby, Cody, who died at some point in his infancy. Connor tried to put this behind them and move on as a couple as soon as possible, whereas Eleanor could not, and moreover, could not deal with Connor’s way of handling it (apparently, he threw the baby’s things into a closet, then ordered Chinese food ten minutes later). The problem with withholding the conflict until later (and still never revealing what actually happened to the baby) and still expecting an audience to stick with the characters is not the technique per se; the problem is that Benson so obviously decided to do this before writing the script, not allowing (as Eleanor herself even mentions in the movie) the story to develop naturally. This is similar to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, the minimalist idea that a story’s conflict, themes, and “true meaning” should not be evident from anything explicitly stated in the text, and that the story itself should focus on the surface elements. That, and let’s face it, Hemingway couldn’t say that a story written in 1927 was about an abortion. The Hemingway influence in Eleanor Rigby shines through even more when considering that it’s also a story about a deceased infant (although Eleanor’s was actually born, and Jig’s was not). Sadly, it’s technique for the sake of technique. The idea is that since none of the characters are “allowed” to discuss it, the audience is not allowed to hear about it, but no dramatic impact would be lost if the baby’s fate were revealed from the start, and in fact, wondering what’s going on is a bit distracting when trying to find meaning in the terrifically acted scenes between the opening and the eventual revelation.
Much of the film is spent trying to either bring the couple back together or allow them to go their separate ways. They reunite after Eleanor impulsively decides to visit Connor’s restaurant, but Connor clumsily reveals that he recently slept with a friend, Alexis (Nina Arianda), which leads Eleanor to disappear again. Connor prepares to move out of their shared apartment permanently, considering an offer to take over his father’s successful restaurant, and slowly removes all of the baby’s things from the closet – a nice, long shot that allows Connor to face what he’s been hiding from without actually saying anything. Eleanor, with peripheral help from her family, decides to move back to New York City, finish the thesis she originally worked on as a student (before becoming pregnant), and study abroad in Paris. Before she does, she visits Connor, and they finally, heartbreakingly, discuss the baby. Eleanor tells Connor she loves him and apologizes for disappearing, and then disappears again. So many of these shots could and should be the final shot of the film. There are only two ways for this story to end: either they get back together and move on, or they don’t. The back-and-forth for years is simply not plausible. But the film opts for one more artistic flourish, fast-forwarding to a future wherein Connor runs his dad’s restaurant, and as he takes a walk before the “rush” (just to let us know the restaurant is doing well), we see Eleanor following him at a distance just as he stalked her earlier. He takes the left path through a park, and just when she should take the opposite path, revealing the final irreconcilability of the whole situation, she follows him. What are we meant to believe? That a return to school and a trip to Paris made everything better for her? If Benson was going for a happy ending, why not end right after the couple’s ultimate confrontation with the problem they’ve been avoiding this whole time? I did tear up at the end, and there’s something to be said for that, but it’s from a combination of Jessica Chastain’s acting, the beautiful un-music of Son Lux, the adept cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt, and the pure, raw sadness of the situation itself. The tears would have been more worth it after two hours if a little more clarity had been allowed – films rarely, if ever, earn ambiguous endings.
Them is a powerful film in many ways, despite the fact that the filmmaker may have been too close to it for natural development to occur, and in its minimalism we find yet another true performance by Jessica Chastain, who even brings back “Chastaining” (see the Glossary). The sadness that undercuts every scene is profound and complete. The issues lie mostly in the characterization of Connor – instead of a unique character, he generally amounts to a typical early-thirties single guy, who wrestles his buddies, sleeps with attractive acquaintances, and struggles to heroically run a business by himself (the type of guy who could lead any rom-com). He’ll do anything to get Eleanor back, and thus, he will do anything the script calls for, rendering him a plot device. I don’t know how it is in the 89-minute Him version, but here, where Eleanor is the lead, Connor’s lone scenes are almost unneeded.
It’s great to see Jessica Chastain back on the screen, and even better that she can find such layers in any character she’s given. The most difficult part of a film like Rigby is that Jessica is often cast as a younger character (here, at least ten years younger). But she doesn’t seem like a person in her mid-twenties, and the film never throws hard numbers out there, so we are left to puzzle out why this mature, intelligent woman is so hung up on grubby James McAvoy and worried about finishing a college degree. Perhaps it’s time to craft characters just for her. Or at least to be more careful with the ones she has.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014); written and directed by Ned Benson; starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy.