Directed by William Oldroyd from a screenplay by Luke Goebel, the less known about Eileen goes into the movie, the better. It’s the kind of movie that will shock and annoy, but also potentially disappoint. Based on a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen boasts magnetic performances from Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway. But for all its intrigue and setup, the film’s final act isn’t entirely deserved, taking a turn that’s more for shock value than it is for story.
The story takes place in 1960s Boston and follows Eileen (McKenzie), an employee at a prison facility and the daughter of a former police chief (Shea Whigham). Eileen has worked in the prison for four years and takes care of her father, who is always drunk. Her life seems to be going nowhere, but then she meets Rebecca (Hathaway), the prison’s new psychiatrist, who is captivating and quickly catches Eileen’s attention. The two become friends and more, but it’s not long before their relationship takes a turn.
Eileen’s actions at the end of the film make sense for her character’s trajectory. She is a painfully lonely person and has long felt the effects of her father’s verbal abuse and alcoholism. However, it’s Rebecca’s actions that come as more of a shock, changing the course of the film completely, forcing it down a path the story could have taken differently. Eileen’s the last act is unexpected. Perhaps it’s meant to surprise and elicit gasps from the audience, but it’s unremarkable compared to what came before.
Rebecca and Eileen are both interesting characters, but Rebecca is particularly understated, and the couple’s relationship even more so. There should be more interaction between them before the film’s big twist, but Oldroyd holds back on offering more. Even the queer romance is undercooked, and often feels restrained. First half of Eileen is deliberately, slowly but surely setting up the characters and the world they live in.
Eileen’s life is the same as it has always been for four years and it is easy to see that she is bored and miserable in her life, passive, an observer who does not seem interested in taking action and often feels that she can’t. Rebecca is the catalyst for the changes Eileen begins to make. Finally, someone really sees her for who she is and can be. For the first time in a long time, Eileen feels alive and in control of where she can go. But the final act doesn’t work as well as it should despite Eileen’s growth. It diminishes much of the groundwork Oldroyd spent so much time fleshing out in the first half. The twist takes a quick shortcut to get to the story’s conclusion while leaving the state of affairs open and ominous. The lack of resolution is perfectly fine, although it would have worked better if the twist had been earned.
And yet there is something intoxicating and alluring about it Eileen. Regardless of how the story ends and in which direction it goes, you cannot help but watch the film. It is exciting and mysterious. Eileen’s watchability is largely due to the performances of Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway. McKenzie is timid as Eileen, imbuing her character with a sense of detachment to everything around her. Her eyes, glazed and unfocused, change when she’s around Rebecca, and McKenzie conveys Eileen’s growth in her body language. Hathaway, on the other hand, is a scene-stealer. Her Rebecca oozes confidence and sex appeal; she’s elusive with just a hint of deception lurking beneath the surface, and Hathaway looks like she’s having fun in this role.
As hypnotic as Eileen is, the film ultimately falls short. Its final moments suggest that it could have become a completely different film than it was originally presented. Had there been enough time to flesh out the story and build the tension, the final Rebecca twist would have worked much better.
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Eileen premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 21. The film is 97 minutes long and rated R for violence, sexual content and language.