First-time writer-director Ned Benson conceived this story
of a star-crossed couple as a two-part movie (subtitled Her and Him) that debuted
at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. The new theatrical release,
shorn of 70 minutes and edited into a single film subtitled Them, shows no signs of doctoring. If
you didn’t know there was more to the story you’d never suspect it from this
intriguing, often moving drama.
It would be hard to find a more compelling or believable
couple than James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain. The characters’ obvious
attraction to one another—depicted mainly in flashbacks—makes their breakup,
following a family tragedy, all the more heart-rending. We meet them in the
aftermath of that break, as each one goes on a journey of soul-searching. He
opens a restaurant with his best friend (Bill Hader), hoping to move out of the
long shadow cast by his successful, if emotionally distant, father (Ciarán
Hinds). She moves back in with her cerebral, but loving, parents (Isabelle
Huppert and William Hurt), rekindles a strong relationship with her sister
(Jess Wexler), and takes classes in Manhattan with a sympathetic,
straight-talking professor (Viola Davis).
Benson makes excellent use of the City, but perhaps his greatest
achievement is dodging the clichés of romantic-movie storytelling. It’s not
that we haven’t covered similar ground before, but his leading characters are
fully formed and beautifully brought to life by his stars. I imagine there is
more footage involving the subsidiary characters in his two-part opus, but each
of those actors still gets a chance to shine: a key scene with McAvoy and Hinds
is a gem of expression and understatement. The one I suspect who suffers the
most in this edit is Broadway actress Nina Arianda, who is seen all too briefly
as one of McAvoy’s cohorts in his struggling restaurant.
Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy artfully convey the
complex emotional makeup of their characters. One never questions their sadness,
frustration, or love for one another.
In a way I’m curious to see the complete two-film cycle
(which will get its own theatrical release sometime soon), just to see how
Benson structured his story from the man and woman’s individual point of view…but
part of me doesn’t want to upset the delicate balance of the film I’ve already
seen and liked.