From the very first few minutes of Eileen, the audience is clued that this won’t be your conventional mid-20th century set drama. The eponymous character masturbates twice, has a wild sex fantasy about a co-worker, and threatens to murder her father. All within the first quarter hour of the film. Directed by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) and adapted by Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel from Moshfegh’s acclaimed novel, Eileen is a stylish wild ride that never lets up from its first frame to its shocking finale.
Played by Thomasin McKenzie with a lethal combination of wide-eyed innocence and determined malevolence, Eileen is a paper pusher at a prison for adolescent boys in 1964 Massachusetts. At home, she’s enmeshed in a toxic relationship with her widowed, mean, and alcoholic father (Shea Whigham). The way they taunt each other, it’s entirely plausible one would shoot the other dead sometime. And true to Chekhov’s gun rule, one is introduced prominently early in the film.
Enter Anne Hathaway as Rebecca, the new counselor at the prison. A Harvard graduate with confidence to spare, Rebecca becomes the focus of Eileen’s attention. Styled like Cate Blanchett in Carol, dripping with blonde perfection and glamour, Hathaway plays the epitome of femininity and sexual obsession. No wonder Eileen looks at her like sweet candy she wants to ravish. Rebecca seductively toys with Eileen, and the latter laps it up. These early establishing scenes between the two characters have a sparkly verve to them with snappy dialogue full of innuendos. Hathaway and McKenzie visibly enjoy playing off of each other with a palpable chemistry that lulls the audience into thinking they are embarking on a grand queer romance. Perhaps there won’t be a sexier moment on screen this year than Hathaway guiding McKenzie to the dance floor as she shakes her head and flips her blond locks to The Exciters’ Tell Him.
Things shift when Rebecca invites Eileen to her house. Both the younger woman and the audience are expecting a night of seduction. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Book readers might be expecting the twist but everyone else is in for a major surprise. Everyone’s opinion and perception of Eileen as a story and film will be colored by their reaction to this unexpected swerve.
Oldroyd keeps the tension lively. Whether the film is briskly introducing characters or slowing down for longer monologues explaining the story, the pace is kept at a riveting tempo. There’s always something intriguing on screen. If it’s not the actors’ committed performances, it’s the sense of place, whether at the prison or the homes of the characters. Or the apprehension for impending danger that always seems to lurk on the margins of the frame. He’s aided by cinematographer Ari Wegner’s work, filling the screen with austere beauty and color.
However this is Hathaway’s show above all. She gives a performance of both uninhibited freedom and precise gestures, delivering the psychological chaos of the character and her manipulative meticulously planned actions. She treads that dichotomy with poise and cool while keeping the audience guessing at the character’s motivations until the very end. In a smaller role as the mother of one of Rebecca’s patients, Marin Ireland comes in like a hurricane of pent up frustrations. When she finally explodes with emotion, everything in the plot snaps to attention. McKenzie keeps up with both actors, mirroring the audience’s ultimate fascination and horror with each character.
Oldroyd has crafted a strange and mysterious thriller with Eileen. It’s not entirely satisfying, however it’s also never less than imaginatively conceived and utterly beguiling. Stylish and full to the brim with subtle story and character beats, this is a film that demands attention, even if it ultimately only rewards it with unyielding pleasures.