Experimental movies, or movie experiences, seem to be pretty unmarketable, to the point that there seems to be a desire to make them as un-experimental as possible once they get past the festival stage. The distributors are likely afraid people won’t be as willing to accept these things in their original version and hence won’t go see it (read: spend money on it). For whatever reason, the Weinstein Company always seems to be at the center of these things, seeing something of interest in movies screened at fests but then watering them down for general consumption. It’s they, after all, who cut down Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster from a 130-minute sweeping epic to a 108-minute action movie, and they who only released the two halves of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse as separate films on DVD, and even only allowed Death Proof to screen at Cannes. They seem completely afraid to let people see something new and innovative, and sadly that seems to have happened with the release of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them.
The film, the debut feature of writer-director Ned Benson, tells the story of a once-happy couple (Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy) trying to deal with their lives after a horrible personal tragedy tears them apart. When it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, it was released in two halves, Him telling the story from the husband’s point of view, and Her telling the story from the wife’s point of view. The former was 89 minutes and the latter was 100 minutes. These two halves will receive limited release in the US on October 10th of this year, however, the 122-minute combined version, Them, is being released this week. Why, you might ask, is the film being released as a whole before the component parts which were the thing that set this movie apart from others like it? No idea, but I do feel like the experience is probably lessened.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them begins with a scene of the dating couple of Eleanor (Chastain) and Conor (McAvoy) dining and dashing from a fancy restaurant in New York City and ending up making out in the park amid fireflies and moonlight. This is quickly juxtaposed to an indeterminate amount of time later when Eleanor attempts to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge into the river below. We’re not sure for quite awhile why she’s done this, but we do know that she wishes to disappear, secluding herself upstate in the home of her NYU professor father (William Hurt), former musician mother (Isabelle Huppert), and single-mother younger sister (Jess Weixler) while she tries to decide what to do with her life. She eventually begins taking classes from her father’s former colleague (Viola Davis), a jaded single mother herself. Conor, meanwhile, is attempting to make his bar and grill restaurant work with his best friend/head chef (Bill Hader) and living with his aging restauranteur father (Ciarán Hinds). The film tracks Conor’s attempts to find his missing Eleanor and come to terms with his life, while she tries to do the same on her own.
Now, there’s nothing particularly bad about anything in this movie, save some cheesy and/or po-faced dialogue, and all of the performances are truly wonderful, no doubt stemming from Chastain being an executive producer on the film. For a first-time director to assemble such a cast is a credit to the concept and the freshness in filmmaking. However, I can’t help but think this version of the story is it delivered in as un-fresh a way as possible. Surely, they were all drawn to the way the two stories could meld together when watched separately, as intended, and how the individual arcs are given their own space to breathe and exist. This version of the movie follows Eleanor much more than it does Conor, especially toward the end, and it seems as though he’s almost a secondary character in a movie that’s supposed to be their story.
I haven’t seen Him and Her, but I would imagine it’d be much more impactful to see them first, or exclusively, than Them which is just a pretty straightforward romantic drama. Not bad at all, in fact mostly good, but knowing that the filmmaker’s intention is not being given the first release, waiting instead until the homogenized version gets its own, larger release just speaks to the distributor’s inability, or unwillingness, to let the audience discover something new and instead take it upon itself to decide what people should see. The two individual films might be no more effective than this one, but it would be nice to get to choose for ourselves. I can’t help wondering if the same type of thinking might have turned the Three Colours trilogy into The Three Colours movie.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is in theaters on September 12.