In this “Groundbreaking cinema” (Sasha Stone, Awards Daily), writer/director Ned Benson ambitiously captures a complete picture of a relationship in the beautifully relatable portrait of love, empathy and truth that is The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. Once happily married, Connor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) suddenly find themselves as strangers longing to understand each other in the wake of tragedy. The film explores the couple's story as they try to reclaim the life and love they once knew and pick up the pieces of a past that may be too far gone. “The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby is refreshingly honest, and reaffirms one meaningful, often forgettable constant - no one single human holds the answers to life's greatest questions.” – Matt Donato, We Got This Covered. Screened for the first time at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Benson's latest version of their story combines his previous two films - titled HIM and HER - uniting their perspectives and taking a further look into the subjectivity of relationships.
The complexities of unraveling 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' begin long before the film even starts. With three different cuts available to watch, the film's very existence is riddled with questions. Multiple cuts of films have existed before – just look at the various versions of 'Blade Runner,' which, at this point, could take up the better part of a weekend just to get through – but this isn't a case of the studio and the director clashing, resulting in a "director approved" version and the "theatrical" or "studio cut." Well, not entirely.
You see, 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' is the brainchild of Ned Benson, as well as his feature film debut as both writer and director. As the story goes, Benson's script attracted star Jessica Chastain – who previously starred in his 2010 short, 'The Westerner' – but she was interested in seeing certain changes made to the title character. This resulted in Benson creating two versions of the film: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her' and 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him,' which would cover the same young couple (played by Chastain and James McAvoy) struggling with the dissolution of their marriage after a tragic loss. The device the film(s) would use, then, would present the situation through the lens of either Eleanor or Conor (McAvoy), allowing for two distinct perspectives on the same series of events.
The format essentially asks the audience to view the film twice (resulting in a run time around 3.15 hours), in order to get the whole story – or at least the story as the characters distinctly see it. It is an ambitious undertaking to be sure, one that has as much potential to explore the depth of its characters as it does the breadth of its narrative. After all, the shortcoming of some films is their inherent inability to accurately portray both sides of the story without becoming an incoherent, discursive mess.
Ambition is one thing, however, while the economic feasibility of marketing and distributing two distinct films that are essentially telling the same story is something altogether different. Enter: Harvey Weinstein, whose The Weinstein Company distributed the film, and "allowed" Benson the opportunity to craft a third cut of the film, known as 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them' – which attempts to blend the two perspectives into one, ostensibly taking two narratives with very close psychic distance to their respective protagonists, and pulling back, to something dramatically less intimate and unique.
That's not to say 'Them' doesn't work; it does, for the most part. It is just that the amalgamated cut of 'Her' and 'Him' renders something unique and personal into something more common and homogenized, and therefore more marketable. It's no wonder, then, that 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them' is considered to be the feature film of this Blu-ray release, while the far more distinct (and in some cases troublesome) cuts of 'Her' and 'Him' are relegated to the unfitting status of "Special Features."
The problem with this third "cut" is more than another case of Harvey Scissorhands Strikes Again; it is that the essence of what Benson was trying to achieve with 'Her' and 'Him' doesn't fit into the conventions of a single film. And how could it? The crux of 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' is that it is two films. And sure, the two films share scenes, but the contexts in which they are presented in either title makes those scenes distinct and sometimes open to new interpretation. Furthermore, the implication of certain events is made greater (and sometimes only apparent) when the second film has been viewed. And so, by combining them into 'Them,' the result is an occasionally discordant feature that, after seeing 'Her' and 'Him' strengthens one version and severely dilutes the other.
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her' is far and away the most compelling and well crafted of the three. Grounded by a tremendous performance by Jessica Chastain, the film paints an intimate portrait of a young woman struggling with immense loss, and the epic fallout of her personal life as a result. Bolstering Chastain's performance are William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor's father and mother, respectively, as well as Jess Weixler ('Teeth') as her sister Katy. While the members of the Rigby family help flesh out the idea of who Eleanor is and give some indication of the depth of her loss, it is the arrival of the fabulous Viola Davis as professor Lillian Friedman that gives the film its most vital relationship outside of Eleanor and Conor.
Even with that ensemble, 'Her' is entirely dependent on and successful because of Chastain's portrayal of a woman at odds with the life she and her husband had created. Her performance consists of equal parts quiet moments and revelatory interactions with others – some of which are actually made more distinct through a viewing of 'Him' – which Chastain handles in a nuanced manner that is unexpected in a film so given to melodrama.
In contrast, 'Him' is, despite terrific performances from McAvoy, Ciarán Hinds, Nina Arianda, and Bill Hader (who, between this and 'The Skeleton Twins' has proven himself as adept at drama as he is at comedy), a disjointed affair. Removing the title character from much of the proceedings does little to elevate the film to anything beyond a sense that it is all just filler, the stuff that would've been cut from the much more successful and emotionally resonant 'Her' anyway. There are some good moments between McAvoy and Hader, but Hinds' role as Conor's father, a philandering restaurateur, with a sudden and unexpected interest in his son's emotional wellbeing, is little more than a thin application of narrative spackle to make Conor a more substantial character. The trouble with 'Him' is: Conor is largely defined by his relationship with Eleanor, and it is through her that Conor becomes an interesting character in his own right. As a result, the Conor we see in 'Her' is more compelling than the one presented in his own 89-minute story.
Still, when viewed together, 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her/Him' and 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them' makes for an interesting triple-feature. Benson is successful in as many ways as he is unsuccessful when 'Her/Him' are watched back-to-back. Differences in certain scenes – especially near the end – make the best use of the "same story from different perspectives" format, utilizing altered camera angles and lines of dialogue in surprisingly effective ways that evoke the split perspective format of Showtime's 'The Affair.' Certain elements do begin to feel repetitive in a way that doesn't enhance the story or justify the use of such a device, but that is the nature of the beast.
And yet, despite the imperfect nature of 'Him,' it is balanced so well by 'Her' that Benson's attempt feels more successful than not. It would have been better for 'Him' to create a more unique lens through which 'Her' could have consequently been viewed, but thankfully, the latter is strong enough to carry the two. By contrast, 'Them' makes for engaging viewing, but lacks the emotional intensity of either film, succeeding mostly in making the story slightly more manageable.
In the end, Benson shows a deft hand at crafting a compelling romance out of tragedy, as well as an eye for character. Although not entirely successful, 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' is worth it for a handful of fine performances that are led by Chastain, and for its attempt to show variation and to play with perspective in ways that take its weighty delivery system beyond mere gimmickry.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' comes from The Weinstein Company as two 50GB Blu-ray discs in the standard two-disc keepcase. 'Them' is on the primary disc, with a single supplemental feature, whereas 'Her' and 'Him' are placed on the second "bonus" disc. That's a whopping 312 minutes of film (mostly the same film, but still), which is enough to overlook the placement of 'Them' as the "definitive" cut.
There is a slight but noticeable difference in the picture quality between the two discs, for obvious reasons. All three movies feature strong images that boast plenty of fine detail in facial features, clothing textures, and background elements. Additionally, the three features deliver crisp edges and good depth all around. Where they tend to differ is in terms of contrast and color.
'Them' delivers the strongest all around image. The fine detail and depth of the image is further enhanced by the strong contrast that produces full-bodied blacks, filling nighttime sequences with rich shadows and great shadow delineation. The frequent fades to black also look good, as they generate a deep, inky darkness that fills the entire screen. On the flipside, white balance is also high, as daytime scenes are fully realized, and bright without being overblown. On 'Her/Him,' however, the contrast is slightly off, producing tones of gray where black should be, and a slight loss of detail during darker sequences. There is one moment in particular where Chastain and McAvoy lay on some grass at night, watching fireflies. The scene is crisp and beautiful on 'Them,' and slightly murky in 'Her/Him.' There is also a slight appearance of some banding in certain spot, but neither disc contains any hint of crush.
Color is vibrant on 'Them.' Blues, reds, and especially purples (the color of Ciarán Hinds' front door) all look great and manage to pop with an appreciated intensity. On 'Her/Him,' though, those colors look slightly duller, and don't leap off the screen with the same intensity as the other disc.
Overall, all three features deliver terrific detail, but the bonus disc comes up slightly short when it comes to contrast and color.
As with the image, the sound on 'Them' – which is delivered through a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix – is stronger than the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix provided for 'Her/Him.' What's surprising, however, is despite the difference between the two the Dolby Digital 5.1 doesn't necessarily feel like that much of a downgrade. Instead, it just doesn't pack the same level of intensity as the DTS, especially when it comes to the musical cues at the end, provided by Son Lux. On 'Them,' the sound is almost overwhelming in how it fills the room and utilizes all channels at its disposal. The cues sound very good on 'Her/Him,' but again, simply lack that extra little bit to make it as penetrating as the other disc.
Where the two mixes stack up against one another quite well is in terms of delivery of dialogue and atmospheric or surround elements. Both discs provide terrific listening experiences that balance the needs of the character dialogue quite well with that of the other sounds on the mix. Actors' voices are distinct throughout and maintain a consistent tone. Additionally, the atmospheric effects are totally immersive on both discs. The sounds of Manhattan come alive on all three features, whereas one scene of Chastain and McAvoy in a car in a rainstorm produces an impressive sounding and well-balanced listening experience.
Aside from the music sounding more fully realized on the DTS, these two discs are fairly evenly matched, producing good audio all around.
Q&A with Jessica Chastain & James McAvoy (HD, 22 min.) – This interview sheds some light on the characters from the actors' point of view. Most of the answers are fairly stock, but Chastain and McAvoy do their best to be upfront and candid.
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her' (HD, 100 min.)
'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him' (HD, 89 min.)
Driven by terrific performances throughout, 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby' could easily have been hamstrung by its narrative device of splitting the perspective across two films. It also could have been further derailed by the existence of the amalgamated 'Them.' And yet, the project comes off seemingly more successful than its failures would suggest. Not all of the film works, but Chastain manages to bolster the entire production with a nuanced performance that is different from what she has appeared in before. For those who will be undertaking all three films for the first time, there are a few choices, but it is recommended you either start with 'Her' or end with it, depending on how you want the details to be revealed to you. If all at once, and then enhanced through the added detail of the individual films, start with 'Them,' and then watch 'Him' and 'Her.' If you reverse it, the story will unfold slower, but you may run the risk of repetitiveness by the time you get to 'Them.' In the end, with all three films spread across two discs, featuring fine image and sound, and a rather simple special feature, this one is definitely recommended.