As you know by now, the origin story of this film is unlikely to be repeated. At TIFF last year, Ned Benson premiered his conceptual feature film debut as a three-hour emotional journey of a break-up split in two parts: ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ (read our review here). Harvey Weinstein acquired the rights, and with no release date in sight, fear from fans (myself included) was that Harvey Scissorhands was going to force Benson into cutting the film down. Seemingly, that’s exactly what happened because a two-hour version, subtitled ‘Them,' premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes (read our review). In something of a welcoming twist, however, Benson says he wanted this third combined perspective, and all three versions will see a theatrical release this fall. But, for someone who has seen and loved the first (and second?) version(s) at TIFF, this didn’t help to ease my anxiety when I sat down to watch the combined version at Cannes. Read on to find out what the major differences between the two presentations are, and which one we think works better.
Looking at it as objectively as possible, ‘Them’ is a solid film on its own and a lot of things that made me fall in love with this story and these characters at TIFF are still present: the two lead performances by Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as Eleanor and Conor are exceptional, the score and the lighting still work like magic to provide an alluring sort of melancholia, and every major character is just as engaging. In fact, one of my biggest fears was that one or two supporting roles would be swept under the rug, but fortunately this isn’t the case as Bill Hader’s best friend, Viola Davis’ professor and Jess Weixler’s sister (my most feared victims) all get the spotlight at one point or another. Though it must be said, Viola Davis benefits the most, as it feels like her scenes just received a slight trim, and a good thing. too. because she’s fantastic as the cynical and witty Lillian. If anyone takes some damage from the supporting roles, it’s Connor’s father played by the charismatic Ciarán Hinds, but two key scenes are still preserved. On the other hand, when it comes to the screenplay, the direction of the scenes, the editing, and the thematic elements, I begin to pine for the longer, and much richer version.
A major loss in ‘Them’ is the crucial thematic layer of memory and the perception of the past. With ‘Him’ and ‘Her,' one of the most appealing things to witness was the same scene occurring in both versions with slight variations. The “perfect storm” sequence is one example; Connor and Eleanor are trapped in a car and about to have sex for the first time after her disappearance. In an effort not to spoil, let’s just say that the way things play out is slightly (yet, crucially) different in ‘Him’ compared to ‘Her.' Naturally, only one version had to be chosen for ‘Them.’ A similar choice had to be made for a climactic and emotionally charged scene at the end, and by this time it was clear to me that the film lost a large chunk of its depth. The problem doesn’t lie with the choices, but the fact that we lose two fundamental aspects in the story; an understanding of the pain these characters are going through, and a psychological, thought-provoking examination of identity in a relationship.
In ‘Them,’ the reason for Eleanor’s disappearance isn’t kept secret, and the whole film very quickly starts to pivot around this tragic incident, whereas in ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ (and especially in the order I saw at TIFF, first ‘Him’ followed by ‘Her’) we find out much later why she vanished. Opponents to ‘Him and ‘Her’ declared this a flaw. In my opinion it was a strength because we were given a chance to fully absorb these characters, completely connect with their pain, loss, and confusion, and when we find out what the cause was, it hits like a freight truck. In ‘Them,' half an hour into the film, the news is just as tragic but much less effective for coming so early. In this way, ‘Them’ plays out like a story about the loss of a child, whereas ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ plays out like the story of two broken individuals, trying to piece their lives together with the help of their families. What’s more, the story in the combined version is about a mother’s grief over the loss of a child, with the film becoming much more Hers than His in ‘Them.’ If I had to divvy it up in percentages, I’d say 30% is taken from 'Him' and 70% from 'Her' in 'Them.' Of course, it feels natural due to the tragedy that the mother is more affected, but the loss of His perspective and his own emotional turmoil is sorely missed. Not to mention that James McAvoy’s performance, the greatest of his career by some mileage, is slightly buried.
It’s little wonder that Playlister Oliver Lyttelton found the screenplay a little self-indulgent in ‘Them,’ which didn’t help the emotional stuff sink in, but when I saw the full version at TIFF, the one thing that stuck out to me the most, more so than the performances or the maturity of the direction, was the script. With scenes played out in full and with added support, the language never sounds as forced as it sometimes does in ‘Them.' In this way, the editing also suffers as the shifts are at times too abrupt, whereas the pace and flow felt in ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ allows the viewer to truly appreciate Benson’s talent with the direction and the writing. Ironically enough, I felt the length more with ‘Them’ than with ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ as in the latter versions, I was more readily lost in the film’s world. All in all, my preference will always be for the richer, more emotionally gripping, and psychologically thought provoking ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions, but it’s a testament to the strength of the performances, the story and Benson’s assured direction that the film still works as a single, solid romantic drama in ‘Them.’
Grade for ‘Them’: B-
Grade for ‘Him’ and ‘Her’: A