Thomasin McKenzie has barely put a foot wrong since her breakout performance in Debra Granik‘s Leave No Trace. After graduating to a leading role in Last Night in Soho, she once again steps back into the ’60s in William Oldroyd‘s adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh‘s debut novel. Once again, she’s able to remain infinitely compelling and intriguing while appearing outwardly unassuming and repressed. Like McKenzie’s performance, Eileen is a film that roils with restless energy under a polite surface. Containing multitudes, it consistently teases different directions before erupting with breathtaking audacity.
Eileen Dunlop is enduring a bleak December in freezing Massachusetts. She’s treated appallingly by her sozzled ex-cop father (Shea Whigham), and not much better by her employers at the boys’ prison where she does clerical work. Practically invisible to everyone else, she indulges in sexual or violent daydreams, like being ravished by a prison guard, or blowing her own head off with Dad’s old service revolver. Those desires that she keeps barely repressed reach fever pitch when a new chief psychologist begins work at the prison. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway) is a blonde bombshell who’s is everything Eileen would like to be; confident, flirtatious, and spontaneous. She also takes an interest in Eileen, and the pair begin a friendship that fires the young woman’s imagination in all kinds of ways.
Eileen is a sultry, sexy, shapeshifter of a thriller. Scored with a serpentine jazzy swing by Richard Reed Parry that sweeps from heady romantic longing through to insistent, threatening noirish throb it nods back to old Hollywood glamour and Hitchcockian thrills. McKenzie and Hathaway (with a firecracker presence she hasn’t had for ages) spark off each other instantly in a way that could be danger or erotic potential. At times it brings to mind Todd Haynes‘ Carol, at others it appears Rebecca is enlisting Eileen to get through to an inmate, or she may just be offering a refuge from her increasingly bitter and unpredictable father. Whatever one expects, what it becomes is pretty certainly becomes something else.
The boldness of the filmmaking is something to behold and it’s entirely possible that it will lose a significant section of its audience. Even if its does, the third act contains a harrowingly brilliant supporting appearance from Marin Ireland, staking a claim for MVP of the entire festival along with her leading role in birth/rebirth. It’s also a spectacular rebirth for mousy Eileen, and McKenzie chews it up with relish and it becomes clear why Oldroyd – who previously kicked the stuffing out of the period drama with the thrillingly amoral Lady MacBeth – was an ideal choice for this sinewy, sharkish thriller. Whether it lands for the viewer as an exhilaratingly bold exercise in delayed gratification and old-fashioned suspense, or as a calamitously collapsing house of cards, it’s unlikely that anyone will be sitting on the fence that Oldroyd and co. took such a wild swing towards.
Screening as part of Sundance Festival 2023