Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her"

Director: Ned Benson
Runtime: 189 minutes

Usually, when producers and filmmakers have different ideas on how to edit a film, the victorious side tends to be taken as gospel among the movie-going public. The losing version is either relegated to a special edition DVD, or is never seen again. However, for first time director Ned Benson, the journey has been more rewarding. After premiere his two-film drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby - two back to back films that cover the events and perspectives of different characters - he was forced to created a combined version, subtitled "Them." Luckily, just over a month after Them arrived in theaters, Benson's original design, subtitled Him and Her, has been given a life of its own outside of the festival circuit. Even though Benson's admirable passion project isn't without faults in its original form, Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her is still a striking character piece that resonates in in unexpected ways as it traverses well-worn terrain.

One has to wonder if there wasn't some plot to start Him/Her's release on the same weekend that Showtime's promising new drama The Affair premieres. Benson's film and the cable channel's TV show operate on similar levels, despite some differences in tone and execution. Him/Her and The Affair (more true of the latter), utilize the Rashomon method of storytelling, with events being replayed multiple times from different perspectives, with key details changed or omitted. 

Yet when it comes to replaying scenes versus filling in the gaps of opposing points of view, the two take radically different approaches. Benson's film(s?) does its best to avoid dramatic redundancy, instead crafting two films that intersect at a select few moments, but otherwise tell very different stories. 

Him opens with a memory of the early, carefree days in the life of Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain). The young couple spend the delightful opening sequence in a near constant state of newfound romantic joy. They run down dark streets, make out in the park, and watch as lightning bugs put on an impromptu show before their eyes. And then the present day arrives, and those moments of ecstatic happiness are wiped away like steam from a mirror.

Long before definitively revealing the tragedy at the center of Him/Her, Benson - working on a meager budget - handles the shift from jumpy past to solemn present with what can only be called elegant bluntness. The change in mood is instantaneous, and even though we don't know the ins and outs of what's happened in the interim, Him/Her still gets the point across that Conor and Eleanor aren't quite who they used to be. In the first 10 minutes, we see Conor and Eleanor in drastically different emotional places, and McAvoy and Chastain's restrained work conveys the months, even years, of hardship in a manner that speaks volumes. 

Though stray lines of dialogue feel a bit baroque for the gritty style, Benson's writing is largely effective at capturing what makes his leads click, even if the answers are a little on the broad side. Conor is more determined to keep moving forward, pouring his energy into his flailing bar. Eleanor, on the other hand, can't shake her recent trauma, and comes to the conclusion that the only way out is to tear her self down and start from scratch. Both exemplify different parts of a fascinating spectrum of human behavior that occurs in the face of truly shattering heartbreak. To tap further into this, Benson utilizes silence in a way that is absolutely crushing. Scenes - mostly for the better - seem to take place in a vacuum, even though much of the film takes place in Manhattan.

Combine this with Christopher Blauvelt's murky visuals, and Him rather quickly develops an all-consuming gloom, despite the flashes of humor. Though consistently well-acted by McAvoy, Chastain, and the rest of the ensemble, Him ultimately emerges as the weaker of the two-part puzzle. There is no mystery to Conor's actions, and therefore almost no sense of discovery in anything that happens in his side of the narrative. Conor's interactions with his semi-estranged father (Ciaran Hinds) are repetitive, adding little of value to the psychological dimension of the film. We wait for Eleanor to make her brief appearance in Him solely because they bring us just a little closer to what most of Conor's story dances around. Despite running 11 minutes shorter than Her, Him often stagnates thanks to Benson's commitment to an unwavering, funereal sense of pace.

Once Him goes through its final fade to black and Her begins, Eleanor Rigby really starts to come to life. The weighty silence is still there, but it's countered by Eleanor's livelier encounters with her sister Katie (Jess Weixler) and her wealthy, withdrawn parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt). Real life friends Chastain and Weixler, despite their very different looks, are ideally cast as sisters. Watching them comfort each other or share a laugh over a stupid joke is the sort of thing that compels one to stick with Her. Then, of course, there's Chastain's performance, which is as complete and acutely observed as any of her other recent performances. After blasting out of the gate in 2011, the actress continues to impress, able to draw one in without manipulatively tugging at heartstrings.  

Put simply, Him is the question and Her is the answer. The former exists mostly to allow for the latter to fill in the blanks, and expand on what we thought we knew. Conor, like the audience, is left trying to piece things together and see through Eleanor's opaque new persona. By contrast, in Eleanor's scenes with her family or her new professor (Viola Davis), the films make actual, observable headway in terms of realizing the scars on its characters' collective psyches. Mr. McAvoy is excellent, but the ordering of the films ultimately leaves him with less to do. A climactic scene in Him belongs to Chastain's painful confession. When Her revisits the same scene, Eleanor's confession only hits harder, while Conor's reaction achieves no greater impact. 

This issue extends to the dual narratives as well. By the time Her finishes, Him is left fighting a losing battle for relevance in the grand scheme of the story. It makes for a solid set up and secondary story, but the balance ought to have been tipped much more heavily in Her's favor. Benson has insisted that the two parts should be able to exist separately or be played in any order, but to do so seems unwise. 

Whatever its faults, when Eleanor Rigby works, it tends to soar. The oppressive mood can be numbing, but when Benson zeroes in on a particular moment and unpacks his characters' emotions, the film becomes more than just a gritty-looking downer. It can be a difficult watch (though it's nowhere near as searing as something like Blue Valentine), but deep down there's a glimmer of realistic, measured optimism at the film's core. Like Rabbit Hole, Eleanor Rigby wants nothing to do with easy answers and notions of getting back to an idealized sense of "how things used to be." It's about confronting the past, so that we may move forward. The shadows of trauma always linger, but that doesn't mean that it's impossible to shrink them by letting in a little light. 

Grade: B/B+

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