The Spool / Movies
An unlikely friendship takes a dark turn in Eileen
Thomasin McKenzie & Anne Hathaway burn up the screen in William Oldroyd’s unsettling thriller.
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Thomasin McKenzie & Anne Hathaway burn up the screen in William Oldroyd’s unsettling thriller.

Eileen will likely be lost in the holiday season shuffle among such spectacles as the upcoming Wonka and awards-friendly fare like Ferrari. On the other hand, it’s unclear under what circumstances Eileen would make a big splash. It’s an odd, occasionally off-putting little film that wouldn’t work as well as it does if not for the scorching chemistry between its two leads.

Based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s (also odd and occasionally off-putting) novel of the same name, Eileen stars Thomasin McKenzie as the titular character, a lonely young woman stuck in a miserable rut. Living in the most depressing town in Massachusetts circa 1964, Eileen is forced to take care of her alcoholic, mean-spirited father (a chilling Shea Whigham, still somehow not one of Hollywood’s biggest stars), a former cop who’s taken to waving his gun at their neighbors. Working as a secretary at a juvenile detention center, though she’s in her twenties she comes off as someone much younger, a meek and awkward child merely dressing up as an adult. Eileen also has a child’s taste for doing things like ignoring her hygiene, stuffing herself with candy, and compulsively masturbating, while maintaining a rich fantasy life involving rough sex with a detention center guard, or murdering her father. Her boredom has reached pathological levels.

Touching down in the middle of all this like a beautiful alien is Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway), the unlikely new detention center psychologist. A classic Hitchcock blonde, Rebecca is smart, sexy, and confident, and no one at the detention center knows what to make of her, least of all Eileen, who is immediately bewitched. She doesn’t know whether she wants to be with Rebecca or be Rebecca, but for the moment she’ll settle for being like Rebecca, immediately taking up smoking and drinking, and paying more attention to her appearance.

Rebecca takes an interest in Eileen as well, for reasons that remain fascinatingly unclear. While Eileen is starry-eyed with infatuation for Rebecca, Rebecca plays things a little more coy and close to the vest. Maybe she does feel something for her, or maybe this is a game, a challenge to see how far she can push a meek little mouse of a girl outside her comfort zone. Whatever the case, their chemistry is electrifying, particularly during a “girls night out” at a bar, where Rebecca pointedly ignores male attention to cozy up with Eileen, who looks like she’d drink bleach if Rebecca told her to. 

Eileen (Neon)

Rebecca also takes an interest in Leo Polk (Sam Nivola), a new inmate at the detention center. Not that kind of interest, but an interest in his father’s murder, and the circumstances leading up to it. This results in a startling third act twist that, due to the film’s abrupt, ambiguous ending, ultimately feels a bit underdeveloped. It feels almost as if Oldroyd, who directed 2016’s critically acclaimed Lady Macbeth, was instructed to keep the film at no longer than 95 minutes (practically a short subject these days), and opted to pare down this particular subplot to the bare bones. But then again, Eileen is above all things a character study, and the thriller aspect of it comes a distant second.   

Speaking of characters, fans of Eileen as a book may be disappointed to note that the script (adapted by Moshfegh herself, along with her partner Luke Goebel) tones down some of the more unpleasant aspects of its protagonist. It doesn’t help that McKenzie doesn’t quite have the creepy, unstable edge that’s needed to play a character who can’t stop herself from masturbating in the middle of her workplace. While novel Eileen reads like a potential serial killer in the making, movie Eileen seems like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, in that all she needs is a little love.

Hathaway, on the other hand, is having the time of her life playing a unique spin on the femme fatale. Rebecca is the kind of woman who doesn’t look like she’s ever experienced a single moment of fear or uncertainty in her life, and who can remind you of why people used to think smoking cigarettes was both classy and incredibly sexy. It’s easy to see why someone like Eileen would be entranced with her, because she’s the kind of elegant but earthy, smoky-voiced broad you normally only encounter in the movies. It’s a bit of a departure for Hathaway, and she’s more than up to the challenge.

However, both she and McKenzie are blown off the screen by Marin Ireland, who, after 2022’s The Empty Man and this year’s The Boogeyman, is cornering the market in playing tormented moms. Though her character doesn’t even make her first appearance until well into halfway through the film, she gives a show-stopping monologue near the end that’s alternately regretful and defiant, and it’s a shame that it will almost certainly be overlooked in favor of performances in bigger films during awards season. She and Whigham have both been well-respected but often overlooked character actors for too long, and Eileen is another reminder of that.

Eileen opens in theaters December 1st.

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