In two minutes, the Beatles captured the empty life of sad singleton Eleanor Rigby. Director Ned Benson is devoting three films to her namesake — a New York divorcée (Jessica Chastain) — and this first entry, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, barely explains her at all. Wan and adrift, if she disappeared any more from her own movie, everything between the credits would be a black hole. When her psychology professor (an excellent-as-ever Viola Davis) grunts, “I don’t really know who you are,” Eleanor sighs, “It’s OK, neither do I.”
Them is about the collapse of Eleanor’s marriage to her husband, Conor (James McAvoy), a relationship that ends in a splash when she jumps off a bridge. The hospital plasters her broken arm and hands her off to her folks in Connecticut, who nervously take Conor’s photos off the wall, disconnect Eleanor’s cell phone, and try to distract her from another suicide attempt. (That the parents, played by Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt, named their daughter after rock’s most miserable spinster implies that good judgment doesn’t run in the family.) If Eleanor mentions her ex’s name, her sister (Jess Weixler) wrinkles her nose like he’s a moldy cheese. Meanwhile, Conor’s stomping around New York and whining about her evaporation to his best friend (Bill Hader), who halfheartedly tries to console him by quoting lyrics from “Love Is a Battlefield.”
Benson teases out the reasons for their split like we don’t deserve to know the facts. It takes 20 minutes before we even know Eleanor and Conor were married, and longer still to learn that they were shattered by a cheap Hollywood trope: an offscreen dead child. (And the movie never deems us worthy of knowing how their son died.) A wedding and a funeral are plot points, not mysteries — they shouldn’t be spliced as surprise gotchas into a script this naturalistic. Just because a film holds back the truth doesn’t make the truth suspenseful. It merely shortchanges the filmmaker and the audience from exploring what that truth means, the gulf between a quickie flick that blurts out “The butler did it!” and a psychological drama that explores what was wrong with the butler all along.
There’s a chance Benson actually could have made that smart flick. Last fall, he premiered two earlier versions of Them — The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him — which reimagined the story of Eleanor and Conor’s breakup through each of their self-serving recollections. The point wasn’t to decide which perspective was the truth. Like a relationship Rashomon, Benson wanted to show how even people who share a life will remember two very different versions of their past.
And then the Weinsteins bought both movies and asked Benson to re-edit them into banality. In grafting the two, they’ve created a monster. Individually, neither Eleanor nor Conor thinks the other makes much sense. As a whole, they both seem nuts — when Eleanor’s quiet, he’s crying, and when Conor’s trying to soothe her, she’s unhinged. (And alone, they’re both vacuums.) In the first 10 minutes, Eleanor’s character swings so wildly that I assumed this was a portrait of manic depression. It isn’t, and it definitely isn’t a portrait of a couple we’re rooting for, despite Them assuming it’s a given that when we see two unhappy pretty people, we just want them to kiss and make up.
From what we see of them, Eleanor and Conor are probably better off getting his-and-her restraining orders. The most endearing habit they share is stalking. The withholding nature of this edit works against Chastain and McAvoy. In their first scene, they’re happy, if a bit sociopathic — we meet them merrily dashing out on a restaurant bill because he’s out of cash and she, for reasons that are never acknowledged, isn’t carrying a purse. The rest is misery, punctuated by screaming matches and cups of red wine. When Eleanor sighs, “I feel like we’re living some dreadful disaster cliché” — a line delivered without a scintilla of irony — Conor can’t do anything but nod, “We are.”
Only once do we see them in love again, in a flashback where they bonk and eat Twizzlers in a car. Later, in a scene that nods to Annie Hall, the pair attempt to relive their happiness. They get another car, another slab of Twizzlers, and start to kiss. Yet the magic’s gone, and we know it before they do — and long before Benson seems willing to admit it.
The Weinsteins are releasing this mash-up first, then the companion versions Him and Her next month. Perhaps those films can justify Benson’s experiment. Alas, Them isn’t a great teaser for spending more time with Eleanor and Conor. Look at all the lonely people, it says. Here’s where they all came from. But what do we care?