Lonely people seek companionship, and an invitation to socialize with someone new can be life-changing. For Eileen, the protagonist of the film of the same name based on the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, the attention of a new colleague does in fact change everything for her, taking up her every thought and encouraging her to put herself out there in an entirely unprecedented manner. Eileen is a film full of moody intrigue, which builds in a worthwhile way before it reaches a less satisfying apex.
Eileen (Thomas McKenzie) works as a secretary at a prison in 1960s Boston. She spends a good deal of her time masturbating, imagining a prison guard rushing towards her as soon as the coast is clear and pushing her up against the wall. The arrival of a new prison psychologist, Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway), gives her a female colleague who for a change doesn’t dislike her and instead invites her out for a drink. Her newfound obsession with this alluring woman is a welcome distraction from life at home with her angry alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), the former police chief.
McKenzie is an incredible talent who first broke through five years ago at the Sundance Film Festival with Leave No Trace, and she has amassed an impressive set of roles in the time since, including Jojo Rabbit and Last Night in Soho. The New Zealand native has a knack for accents and therefore has no trouble laying on a thick Boston dialect. It’s just as interesting to watch her face, which is frequently framed in rearview mirrors and which Rebecca describes as “plain but fascinating.” She is extremely expressive, and at times even becomes surprisingly silly while psyching herself out in the mirror before a highly anticipated interaction.
McKenzie works well with a director known for an exceptional collaboration with a lead actress, William Oldroyd, who was last at Sundance with his feature directorial debut Lady Macbeth, starring Florence Pugh. Oldroyd centers the film on Eileen’s perspective, which finds her driving to and from work in a car that starts smoking unless the windows are rolled down, hardly an appealing necessity in Massachusetts in December. Among the film’s most memorable scenes are those that follow Eileen walking down a hallway or staring intently at Rebecca or an inmate who intrigues her. It feels like Eileen’s world is small but she hasn’t done much to expand it, and the knowledge that she is the only one who can care for her irritable father keeps her from doing much, until Rebecca comes to town.
Hathaway is well-cast opposite McKenzie, and it’s particularly fun to watch how Rebecca utters off sarcastic remarks that Eileen takes seriously, like a request for her to bang down her office door if she ever hears screaming from inside (there’s a buzzer, she clarifies). Whigham, who also plays a father with a complicated relationship to his offspring in another Sundance selection, Fancy Dance, fires off several amusing remarks, like that he was forced to retire because he was “too goddamn good at his job,” but otherwise makes his character quite unlikeable. Marin Ireland is also a memorable member of the cast as an inmate’s irate mother who has no desire to process her son’s crimes with Rebecca.
This is a film that, accompanied by a melodramatic score by Richard Reed Parry, builds its plot slowly as Eileen gets closer to Rebecca. As it progresses, it takes an unexpected turn that shifts the tone considerably. While Eileen its inspiration from the novel and shouldn’t be faulted for adapting preexisting material, it does feel abrupt and somewhat disjointed, taking the film in a new direction that is considerably darker and not as compelling. It still remains haunting, and the quality of its performances and the run-up to its finale make it a worthwhile if flawed watch.
Eileen is screening in the Premieres section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute