Jessica Chastain Struggles to Light Up 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'

The dark drama charts a couple's separation after a terrible tragedy, but never goes deep enough.

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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is a movie about profound loss that somewhat infuriatingly unfurls as a mystery for its first half-hour. Jessica Chastain is the titular Eleanor, married to Conor (James McAvoy) in a partnership that was, at least at one point, happy (glimpsed in brief, cloying flashback). She attempts suicide by jumping off the Manhattan Bridge early in the film, and as we spend time with her in the immediate aftermath, we try to figure out just what happened to her to precipitate the crisis and why she has cut Conor out of her life.

After a little while, we realize it's because they lost their baby son, and for me, this blew up the entire approach of the film. It makes sense that Eleanor is in the bathtub of grief and pushed away Conor after he attempted to bottle up his feelings and move on. Rigby, from first-time director Ned Benson, attempts to dissect the inscrutability of the titular character's depression, but too often lurches too far into melodrama, with characters silently or loudly raging at why she's acting the way she is. We know why.

No review of the somewhat insufferably-titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them can exist without fleshing out the whole strange story of the film's genesis, so here goes: It premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival in two parts, subtitled Him and Her, focusing on each of the main characters' experiences. The version being released in theaters this week mixes both storylines, although the separate films will also see limited release next month.

The mash-up is occasionally jarring, since Benson established two firm color palettes for his characters that we switch between; it may also be a root cause for the film's issues, since the parallel journeys don't line up as well as one might hope. While Eleanor is trying to put herself back on her feet, living at home with her parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) and sister (Jess Weixler), Conor is a bubbling cauldron of misplaced anger, trying to keep a failing bar/restaurant afloat. It's tough to sympathize with him once we realize what's going on with her, but given the re-cutting going on, it's hard to know whether that was even the intent.

Benson has assembled a fabulous cast (along with everyone I mentioned, Ciaran Hinds does understated work as Conor's brick wall of a father, Bill Hader is his best friend, and Viola Davis is wonderful as Eleanor's flinty NYU professor) but anchors his script to Chastain. She's excellent—touchy, mannered in how she tries to come off as effortlessly natural, a little showily troubled, but in the way only truly troubled people can be. It's frustrating to watch Eleanor be prickly and occasionally cruel, and it's just as frustrating to watch her try to just reset her life to normal, as it should be.

But most of the time, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is undone by its clunky, on-the-nose dialogue and its reliance on plotty clichés. Eleanor's suicide attempt never feels quite earned, despite the tragedy she endured, and the movie sees everyone else walking on eggshells around her but generally failing to intervene in any particular way after her dramatic actions which open the movie. Yes, it makes sense that losing a child would spur such dark thought, but the film leaves it at that without going deeper. Rigby explores the how of grief, not so much the why, and thus fails to claw back any happiness for its characters as they finally start to figure out how to move on.

Conor's sections of the film also can't hope to stand up to Eleanor's; they're too wrapped up in his failing business and his ill-defined father issues—his dad is successful in the restaurant world and not great at expressing his feelings — but it's otherwise hard to grasp why Conor should have such a chip on his shoulder. Because Conor's arc is all about how he internalizes his depression, he comes off as a surface-level grump. There's also no good reason for McAvoy to use an American accent, which has never been his forte and makes him sound even whinier.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby at its core suffers from the giant bet it's made to try and portray an unimaginable loss. Almost no cinematic portrayal could live up to the challenge, and despite occasionally subtle work from the cast and lovely visuals from cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, Rigby can't come close. It's a glum, wrenching experience to watch, but the emotional impact is just far too shallow to linger.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.