Eileen is the new film from director William Oldroyd, who made a splash back in 2016 with his debut feature, Lady Macbeth. He has taken his time to follow it up, and Eileen is the audacious result. It is based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel of the same name: Moshfegh has since became a literary sensation with her second novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which also has a film adaptation on the way. Anne Hathaway, who stars in the film, has described it as “Carol meets Reservoir Dogs.” While maybe not 100% correct, it’s an interesting enough hook and juxtaposition of films that it’s intriguing.
Thomasin McKenzie stars as the titular character, a mousy young woman who is working at a juvenile prison facility. She has an incredibly drab life in early ’60s Boston, Massachusetts, and lives with her abusive alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham). Eileen attempts to keep her sexual fantasies at bay, early on she stuffs snow down her pants to literally cool it down. But she has a rich fantasy life throughout the film, which somewhat recalls the final sequence of You Were Never Really Here. Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) arrives as the new psychologist for the facility, and she gives this young girl the attention she clearly needs in her life. She becomes obsessed, and the question ends up being, does she want to be her, or does she want to fuck her?
The two lead performances are some the best work from McKenzie and Hathaway, with Whigham in a truly menacing turn as her father. McKenzie’s performance isn’t that far off from her character in Last Night in Soho, but Eileen is more timid and internal. Her Boston accent has faced some criticism, but she is believably as this mousy young woman, and any imperfections aren’t noticeable. Hathaway gives quite possibly her best performance to date as a platinum-blonde, cigarette-smoking femme fatale who represents everything Eileen wants. She has some great lines, like “I shouldn’t smoke, but I do.” Marin Ireland has a memorable performance later on in the film, which flips the entire narrative on its head.
On the surface, it feels very much like a take-off on Todd Haynes’ Carol, and the promotional shots that are out there certainly are playing on the similarities, and the film poster most certainly will too. Both films are set during Christmas as well, which no doubt will fuel the comparisons. Eileen, however, is a completely different beast to Carol: the final act has a twist that feels like cinematic whiplash, and that’s where the Reservoir Dogs comparison comes in. There is another question about Rebecca that you can debate with your friends when you see the film.
Eileen isn’t a perfect film by any means, but it recalls Hitchcock and noir films of the ’50s, and does it with a spin that makes it unique. The film will most certainly displease many (and already has), but if you like your films to challenge the viewer and have interesting over “likeable” characters, you should have much to enjoy. There is great cinematography from Ari Wegner as well, which makes it feel reliably like the early ’60s. The film also doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it, running at 90 minutes and, like many of the best films, leaving the audience wanting more.