For Ben York Jones, it’s all about character. As a screenwriter, his feature writing credits include the 2011 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Like Crazy, Breathe In and the forthcoming WWII drama Ashes in the Snow. As an actor he can be seen in the Emmy- and Cannes Lion-winning web series The Beauty Inside, the 2010 Sundance Competition film Douchebag, and the short film Safety. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he is picking cat hair off one of his many plain black T-shirts. (Photo by Tiffany Roohani)
After expressing my disinterest in the previous film I wrote about for the Talkhouse, I really, really wanted to love Ned Benson’s The Disappearance Eleanor Rigby: Them. Admittedly, in some small part to prove to myself that I’m not a curmudgeon. Also, because this is a community of filmmakers and there are real and extraordinarily talented people behind each of these movies we talk about, the instinctive desire is to celebrate. It’s something that makes this outlet so awesome. We go into the films we plan to write about, hoping they’ll be the best we’ve seen all year. Wanting to discover. Seeking catharsis. Following suit, I was very much looking forward to seeing this movie. Imagining what it might be like; knowing very little about it other than it had an enticing premise, an amazing cast (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert – the best ensemble of the year?), and a killer poster. A poster that said to me, “We’re gonna cut through all that noise out there with the sound of stillness. And it’s gonna be fucking beautiful.”
To be fair, yes, I might have projected my hopes onto this film more than a little. More than anything, I found myself wondering what meaning such an audaciously mysterious and loaded title could hold. Why Eleanor Rigby? It conjures such a specific but elusive feeling. Smoke stacks and forlorn clergy. It’s kind of like calling your movie, I don’t know… Texas! And if you do that, people are going to expect a guy in a cowboy hat at some point. So, filled with moody expectations and a desire to celebrate, I prepared myself to be taken away. And for about 15 minutes, I genuinely was. But as quickly as I fell in love with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, I fell out.
I’m honestly having a hard time figuring out how to constructively talk about this movie. It’s not as if it’s a harmful film that represents a step in the wrong direction, or anything remotely as offensive as that. (In fact, its innocuous nature is part of the issue I take, considering the attempted subject matter.) And there are things I liked about it, which I’ll touch on in a moment. But overall… it just bugged me. And I was left with a list of grievances. I know “bugged” is kind of a cop-out word, but in that way it accurately reflects my feelings toward the film’s intentions. Or maybe it was the execution of those intentions.
I feel like Benson and his creative colleagues set out to make a poignant, tonal, character study of epic proportions, but through whatever changes and challenges, ended up with a mildly confused exercise in verbally communicated exposition that strangely calls upon the hallmarks of a romantic comedy. The best friend is there to facilitate insight into our main guy; basically, to ask him a bunch of questions so we can easily track his arc. The parents are present so our main characters can roll their eyes, then eventually come around to their words of wisdom at the third-act break. The sister of our leading lady is there. I’m not actually sure why she was there, but I’d watch Jess Weixler take out the garbage, so all good… Incidentally, these aren’t points of criticism for a certain type of film, and none of it is easy even if it’s done the easy way. But strangely employed hallmarks such as these, mixed in with a beautiful dreamlike score by Son Lux, a powerful but totally unaffected production design by Kelly McGehee, and the occasional treat in the way of a “Malick Takes Manhattan”-feeling shot sequence made for an overall inconsistent and bumpy ride. It led me to believe the film might not have known where it was supposed to live, or what it was trying to say.
But I’m also aware of and sensitive to the fact that this movie was filmed and edited in an unconventional way. It was, I’ve read, cut together from The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, which are being packaged as one 201-minute feature entitled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her/Him (to be released on October 10). The existence of these two films causes me to pause in my criticism, lest my grievances be addressed in the forthcoming film, at which point I’ll wear egg on my face. But this film in its current incarnation is being released as a standalone feature, so I’m allowed to comment on it thusly.
While every actor in the film is true and rich in their moments, the moments in sequence also prove somewhat inconsistent. That is to say, motivations seem misaligned. As if the connective tissue of the more paramount scenes were composed of “And then…” rather than the more cause and effect-oriented “And therefore…” The sometimes seemingly trivial nature of events is punctuated for me by the title itself, which is sadly addressed and dismissed at the top. [SPOILER ALERT] (kind of): Eleanor (Chastain) explains when asked, that her parents met at a rumored Beatles concert and her last name happens to be Rigby. That’s it. Scarcely to be mentioned again. [END SPOILER ALERT.]
This moment and the lack of mystery throughout also speaks to the disconnect I had with the film, which is bothersome because I sense Benson’s movie really tries to cultivate some mystery. But perhaps in the wrong areas. For example, we’re denied information regarding why Connor (McAvoy) and Eleanor, our protagonists, have split. We know they were extremely happy together, as is quite superbly established in the film’s opening scene. Then suddenly, Eleanor is jumping off a bridge and the couple breaks up. The effort to maintain mystery around the event that caused their split, which I think most intuit as the death of a child, actually backfires. I say this because it’s not until the last act of the film that we see any evidence that a baby once existed in the lives of Connor and Eleanor. It’s intangible and distant until then. In fact, prior to this moment, I found myself forgetting that was the thing that drove them apart.
For all my curmudgeonly complaints, the moment we finally do see a picture of Connor and Eleanor and their baby boy, and we see all the toys that won’t ever be played with and the blankets that won’t be cuddled… that’s the moment things begin to feel real. It’s so well done, and so wonderfully acted. It’s the film’s absolute best moment. Heartbreaking. But it’s a moment that comes too late to live up to its potential.