Gone Girl: "Eleanor Rigby" a stirring, richly acted examination of love and loss

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014)
122 min., rated R.

A collective 180-minute tome version of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" was screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. With one part subtitled "Him" and the other subtitled "Her," it approached two sides of the "he said/she said" story. The Weinstein Company then acquired distribution rights and planned to release it as one film first, which kind of defeats the purpose of writer-director Ned Benson's experiment, but this isn't another "Hobbit" situation where one film is needlessly (and cynically) overstretched into three. "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them," as the title appears onscreen, is the complete story told from dual viewpoints, forming an appreciably two-sided, nonjudgmental condensation and making for an absorbing, stirring, finely nuanced examination of a relationship broken by the heartbreak of loss. From what's up on the screen, no one will be able to tell that the film was cut separately into two versions. 

When we first meet our thirtysomething married couple, Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and the knowingly named Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain), they have just finished dinner at a posh restaurant. They have no money to pay the check, so they try to make a subtle run for it and high-tail it down the street to a park. This is when they were still happy and deeply in love, but the next time we see them is their lowest point. In the wake of a personal tragedy, Eleanor tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, but the results are unsuccessful. After being relieved from the hospital, she goes to stay with parents Mary (Isabelle Huppert) and Julian (William Hurt), librarian sister Katy (Jess Weixler), and Katy's young son (Wyatt Ralff), and then has her dad put in a good word for her to go back to school. It is evident that Eleanor has cut all communication to husband Conor, who is trying to keep his restaurant afloat with his best friend Stuart (Bill Hader) as the chef and then seeks support from his aloof father, restaurateur Spencer (Ciarán Hinds). When Connor spots Eleanor leaving school, he tries finding the right time to communicate with her, but it can only work if she allows it.

Throughout its truncated, albeit not choppy, and deliberately paced 122 minutes, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" runs the gamut of emotions, from idyllic love to devastating pain to the hope of starting anew, and always cuts to the bone of those emotions. For his narrative feature debut, writer-director Ned Benson knows that, without a shorthand, it is smarter to show rather than tell. A story about love and loss doesn't break any new ground—at times, one might recall 2010's Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams love tragedy "Blue Valentine"but it's the delicate and honest execution in which Benson goes about telling it. Without too much teasing or placing too much of a distance between the viewer and the characters, Benson makes us work a little by dishing out the enigmatic particulars of Eleanor and Conor's rift slowly. Viewers accustomed to receiving answers easily and quickly might be overly frustrated with the way the film gradually reveals its layers, but it's one of those films where it seems like nothing is happening, and yet everything is happening.

This is a stunningly acted picture across the board, everyone making a solid mark. It's hard to expect anything less, but Jessica Chastain is excellent in her multi-tiered performance as the Eleanor Rigby of the title (and yes, her Beatles song-inspired name does get mentioned). Even in a tough spot, as Eleanor refuses to discuss the elephant in the room, she's vulnerable, tough, open, and seemingly unable to strike a false note or show a shortage of range. James McAvoy, who has always deserved more accolades for his work, is every bit Chastain's equal, being tasked with more sensitivity as Conor whose heart aches when trying to understand why his wife abruptly cut off communication with him. He has a way of being a magnetic charmer but also hinting at something restless, angry, and flawed underneath. Both actors create such a soul-mate history from the earlier romanticism we see, as well as other glimpses of their happiness, to what tore them apart. The invaluable Viola Davis does strong work as Professor Lillian Friedman who takes a chance on Eleanor, a role that which she gives life, levity and compassion. Isabelle Huppert, as Eleanor's French wino mother, and William Hurt, as her academic therapist father, feel lived-in and share lovely, even biting, moments; startlingly enough, they actually look like they could be Chastain's parents. As their younger daughter Katy, Jess Weixler also shares a sweet, supportive and even jokey rapport with Chastain. Bill Hader, as Conor's chef buddy, and Nina Arianda, as actress/bartender Alexis who works for Conor, round out the cast without seeming like mere types.

An empathetic, perceptive, and emotionally rich character study, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" actually explores its characters, while being kind to them and still letting life throw them around. Both Conor and Eleanor have different ways of grieving. He doesn't know what to do, struggling to make a business work, despite watching his father in the same profession. She wants to reinvent her life and find herself again. When Eleanor and Professor Friedman sit and talk over a cheeseburger and fries, the professor speaks openly of her own emotional toughness with her past relationship: "He went soft; I stayed hard." Ditto for Eleanor in her marriage with Conor. Every now and then, a character will speak in a platitude, not unlike that of a screenwriter's sounding board, but somehow the dialogue never clangs because it seems germane to how these smart, urbane people would think and talk. For instance, when Eleanor is comforted by her father, he says, "Tragedy is a foreign country — we don't know how to talk to the natives." The implications of the two characters' past are heartbreaking and the final scene captures a beautifully open-ended sense of hope, but one still might be devoted to find out even more in the additional cuts, "Him" and "Her," to find a fuller resonance. As it turns out, Conor and Eleanor are worthy of the viewer's time, care, and concern, even when the film puts themand usthrough the wringer. Eleanor Rigby might disappear, but the impact this film strives for and attains isn't going anywhere. 

Grade: B +