There Is an Unwritten and Unfilmed Core to 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'
This is a movie about hearts and selves, bodies and trusts, and most importantly how people deal (or don't deal) with loss.
Early in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) approaches Lillian (Viola Davis), a professor at Cooper Union and also a former classmate and friend of Eleanor's dad. As they make their way along the sidewalk to a coffee truck so Lillian can order a double espresso, the teacher wonders about Elle's name: "That must be tough." Elle's heard this before, of course, much like she's heard the next question about her parents' music preferences. Still, and as self-aware as either she or Lillian may seem, standing before the food truck in their vibrantly colored blouses, you're already worried. Their friendship is a movie-style contrivance that's too self-knowing about being just that.
The same might be said of most of the movie, which is actually a recombinatory edit of two other movies, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him, designed by first time maker Ned Benson to consider the very different experiences of a young white New York City-based couple in the throes of a breakup. The start of the film sketches the before-breakup bliss, none of it news and all of it too self-aware. Elle and Conor (James McAvoy) run down a sidewalk away from a neighborhood restaurant, where Conor has adorably discovered he doesn't have the money to pay for dinner. They find a park, fall to the grass and kiss passionately, notice the fireflies. "There's only one heart in this body," Conor cautions, "Have mercy on me."
Yes, this is a movie about hearts and selves, bodies and trusts. More than one person in the film articulates this central concern, as Elle and Conor and their friends and family deal with (or don't deal with) the loss of the couple's baby, a (clichéd) offscreen event that defines and undefines everything onscreen.
No one has an easy time of it, mostly owing to the painfully awkward shorthand they're assigned to perform. And so: Conor's restaurateur dad (Ciarán Hinds) advises his son, "You shouldn't be interested in regretting things," Elle's psychology professor dad (William Hurt) inexplicably tells her, "Tragedy is a foreign country, I don't know how to talk to the natives" (here she has the presence of mind to regard him as if he's from Mars) and her mother (Isabelle Huppert) has to reassure Conor, who shows up unexpectedly in search of news of his suddenly disappeared wife, that although she first perceived him as "this obnoxiously perfect boy who walked off with my daughter's attention," now, well, he's kind of grown on her.
It's hard even to know what to say about Conor's best friend Stuart (Bill Hader) being saddled with dialogue by way of Pat Benatar lyrics ("Heartache to heartache") or observe, "I don't know how to be your friend anymore." You might wonder if he could have ever known, based on the glimpses of their relationship provided by The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, but assuming they do have a history that makes this make sense, his phrasing remains less than helpful.
As such, it's much like the other interactions between Elle or Conor with people trying to help or trying to understand or trying to share. Though both fathers remind their children that they have lost the child as well, all seem stuck in a pattern that's based in stating the obvious, however elegiacally. (By the time Elle's dad begins to recall for her the day he "almost lost" her two-year-old self in the Atlantic Ocean, you might be ready not to listen, but do, for Hurt renders this story with the sort of lovely cadence that really only he might achieve.)
That's not to say that such a pattern is unbelievable or that the individuals so unable to express themselves are unfamiliar. In fact, the trouble is the opposite. Leave it to Lillian to state the obvious about the obvious. "All the lonely people," she says to Elle, "Where do they all come from?" While Lillian might be refreshing in the context of these many affluent white people who find it so hard to say what they mean or what they want, that in itself is trouble too. She takes the oh-so-damaged Elle out for a hamburger, and as they indulge in red meat and French fries, Lillian speaks frankly, if cryptically, of the husband she left and the adult son with whom she's lost communication. She doesn't have a lot good to say about being a mother ("There are not words to describe whatever the fuck labor is"), but she embodies an alternative for the stymied Elle, which is to move on, with regrets, energy, and a sense of humor too.
Given her field of expertise, it's not exactly surprising that Lillian early on identifies Elle in a way that's both too general and too specific, as a member of a "generation of too many choices." Elle is resentful, as you expect, but Lillian is resilient. She reads Steinbeck, she sits on hallway floors, and she looks after Elle with admirable hands-offness. You like to imagine she's got stuff to do in the third part of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, the part unwritten and unfilmed.