Eileen is a slow-burn psychological thriller, anchored by three captivating performances. It is styled like a 1940s film noir and set during the 1960s. However, it isn’t about crime. It features a character whose clothes, hair, makeup and even aspects of her personality seem patterned after femme fatales, but she definitely doesn’t fit neatly into that trope. This is a story about loneliness, hopelessness, feeling trapped in a miserable life and then suddenly seeing what looks like freedom.
There is something vaguely familiar to Eileen (based on the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh). Director William Oldroyd captures the mood/tone of a thriller, while never tipping his hand to give the audience a clean look at what we can sense under the surface.
Eileen is a 24-year-old woman who lives with her alcoholic, depressed, verbally abusive father and works as an office assistant in a Boston prison. Her world is blandly ugly and she is invisible, just keeping her head down and getting through it until it’s all over. Then, one day, a new psychologist is hired at the prison. Her name is Dr. Rebecca St. Clair and she is glamorous, confident and bold. She immediately takes an interest in Eileen, brightening up the young woman’s world and motivating her to change things.
The title character has been trained (by society and especially her family) to think she deserves nothing. If she didn’t get insulted, she’d get nothing at all. In contrast, Rebecca is worldly, smart and, most importantly, independent. She is everything Eileen wishes she could be and she inspires Eileen to try to be more. Their friendship is intriguing and surprising because we don’t truly know what each woman wants from the other. They are both enigmatic in a way, though we know Eileen better, since the story sticks with her throughout.
Eileen (91 minutes, without the end credits) is centered on three very strong performances. Obviously, the most significant is Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen. On first glance, she is a blank slate. If you look deeper, you can see the anger and desperation waiting to break free. McKenzie has a softness to her movement and speech that could make it easy to see Eileen as harmless. The look in her eyes as her father berates her says otherwise.
Her entire demeanor changes when she meets Rebecca. Unexpectedly, she sees possibility where it had not existed before. McKenzie isn’t subtle in the way she expresses her excitement, making Eileen seem like both a child and adult at the same time, which is intentionally disarming.
Her father is played by Shea Whigham with sadness, rage and regret. Mostly, he regrets that his wife died and he’s stuck with his useless youngest daughter (his words). Whigham has a couple of speeches that are brutal because of how calmly and honestly he tells his daughter that she doesn’t matter. The character really only has one purpose in the story, but Whigham makes him seem three-dimensional.
The last major role goes to Anne Hathaway as Rebecca. Since we exclusively see her through Eileen’s eyes, we never know if we’re seeing the real Rebecca or Eileen’s fantasy of her (Eileen’s imagination plays a big part here). Hathaway plays her as though she had both options in mind at once. Why did she single out Eileen for her attention? Does she find her appealing in a sea of unpleasant people? Or is she trying to seduce Eileen with her fashion, wit and friendliness in a town where it is clear that those things are in short supply?
Eileen assumes the former. The screenplay by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel kind of hints at the latter. Hathaway could easily have played her as a concept and it wouldn’t have felt out of place. Instead, she gives this woman an unpredictability that keeps things engaging even when not much is happening.
Eileen is hard to describe. It is a thriller less for what actually occurs and more for where it might be going. The pacing suits the character, yet it lost me a few times around the middle, until the final act, which brings things together in an oddly satisfying, if not altogether conclusive, way. The performances are very good and the story is solid. The production design is appropriately drab (with the exception of Rebecca). The sum of its parts may be greater than its whole. Still, this is an enjoyably low-key genre entry that values character over twists.
3½ out of 5
Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen Dunlop
Shea Whigham as Jim Dunlop
Anne Hathaway as Rebecca
Directed by William Oldroyd
Screenplay by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh