Each day this week, a staff member of The Dissolve will pick a movie from 2014 they liked more than the critical community at large. Today, Noel Murray recommends The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Her, just one entry in Ned Benson’s nearly accidental trilogy. Starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, all three films chart the destruction of a single marriage, with ever-shifting perspectives amping up the drama. The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Her has a 74 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a 67 on Metacritic.
Kate Erbland: Noel, you wrote The Dissolve’s double review of both The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her back in October. At that time, you gave Her 3.5 stars. (Him, interestingly enough, yielded a 2.5.) Has your opinion of the movie changed at all? Would you rate it higher or lower now?
Noel Murray: No, I think 3.5 is about right. There’s a lot that’s wrong with Her, including the presence of a clichéd college professor character who helps Jessica Chastain’s post-suicidal Eleanor find herself. That the professor is played by Viola Davis only makes matters worse, because it’s yet another case in the movies of a black character existing primarily as a helpmate to a privileged white character. But I was impressed by Her first and foremost as a showcase for Chastain, and I still think she deserves more year-end attention than she’s getting for her performance as a woman who’s trying to heal in public.
Kate: Director Ned Benson’s original vision for the film was an ambitious one—two different films telling the same story from dueling perspectives—and though both Him and Her were eventually released in theaters, a heavily edited cut called Them was released first. How did Her compare to Them for you? How did it compare to Him?
Noel: The problem with Them is that the whole structural and conceptual integrity of The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby demands that it be split into two films, otherwise the whole “he saw”/“she saw” element fails to come through. I’m not the biggest fan of Him, but I love all the scenes that overlap with Her, because they really do offer an entirely different perspective on the same moments. They’re lit, shot, and acted in subtle but distinctly different ways, to get across how Chastain’s Eleanor looks capricious and inscrutable to James McAvoy’s Connor (while to Eleanor, Connor is more of a sad reminder of the past). Cut together, those distinctions are harder to discern, and Them becomes balanced to a fault. In the middle of this gripping story about one woman’s painful road to rejuvenation, Benson keeps cutting away to this sad-sack dude, whose problems are way less interesting.
Kate: Even watching Them, I found Eleanor’s story to be much more interesting and engaging—did you feel that way? And, if so, how much of that hinges on script and direction versus Chastain’s very fine performance?
Noel: Well, I don’t want to undervalue what Benson brings to the table here, because he’s clearly a talented guy. Though I was more impressed with the direction than the writing in both Her and Him. Both films have an appealing looseness and intimacy in the filming that Benson undercuts whenever his characters open their mouths and start spouting either chunks of previously unrevealed backstory or bland self-actualization clichés. But would I like Her as much without Chastain? Highly doubtful. I feel like she brings the same combination of steeliness and fragility here that she brought to Zero Dark Thirty, but because she’s playing a far less exceptional character, she has to work much harder to get the audience to care about what happens to her.
Kate: Her also features some stellar supporting work, thanks to a wonderful and slightly motley group of actors, including William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, and Jess Weixler as various members of Eleanor’s family. Did any of those performances stand out to you in particular?
Noel: Well, as a Good Wife fan, I loved seeing Weixler, and thought she had a strong role to play, as the sister who wants Eleanor to get better but is also sick of seeing her suck up all the family’s attention. But I especially like Huppert’s work here, because it’s clear her character grappling with the consequences of being an emotionally distant mother. Really, the reasons I like Her so much are almost all tied to how well Benson and the cast capture that particular family dynamic, where everyone is at once worried, guilty, and more than a little angry about what’s happening to Eleanor.
Kate: The series was billed and marketed as a love story, —albeit one with a narrative twist. Do you think the film would have found a better and bigger audience if more emphasis was based on its other dramatic pieces, specifically the emphasis on family you point out?
Noel: The whole two-movie thing was always going to be a tough sell. It’s not a natural fit for a theatrical release, and it’s hard to entice the VOD audience to invest nearly four hours in a first-time writer-director with an arty gimmick. Benson’s best bet might’ve been to sell this project to cable, for a two-night event on HBO or Showtime. That might’ve gotten more attention. Ideally though, I wish he’d just made Her. I feel pretty sure that a single film, about Eleanor, with that Jessica Chastain performance, would’ve at least drawn some notice from the various year-end awards voters. Instead, I feel like Her and Chastain are both being lumped in as part of a failed experiment, when—like Eleanor herself—both work just fine when disentangled from Him.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her is not yet available for rent or purchase. Here’s its trailer: