Eileen is the kind of fun bait-and-switch film that comes along frequently but rarely sticks the landing. Usually, films that attempt a twisty narrative with a technical difficulty of ten end up going off the rails, sometimes in just plain dreadful fashion (Collateral Beauty, The Book of Henry), sometimes in spectacularly awful fashion (Serenity, The Winter’s Tale). Eileen, however, sticks the landing. Ten out of ten, no notes. From director William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth) and screenwriters Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh (adapting Moshfegh’s eponymous novel), Eileen is like Patricia Highsmith, if Patricia Highsmith was reporting live from the gutter, sis! It’s Carol, if instead of sad and romantic, Carol was horny and deranged.
Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eileen, a young woman working at a juvenile prison in the 1960s. Her dad is a drunk retired police chief obviously haunted by World War II, her mother is dead; her “good” sister is nowhere to be seen, having married and moved away and, apparently, never looked back. Eileen goes through the motions at her secretarial job at the prison, taking an interest in a boy who stabbed his father to death, and jilling off outside the family visiting room while imagining the creepily hot guard (Owen Teague) banging her in full view of everyone. Eileen has a very active imagination, and usually goes right to the worst thing that could happen in any given moment.
Things start to look up with the arrival of the prison’s glamorous new psychologist, Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway, who, shall we say, understands the assignment). Eileen is instantly smitten, and it seems Rebecca is at least fond enough of Eileen to entertain the younger woman’s crush. They go for drinks, dance, Eileen takes up a series of personal vices to imitate the object of her affection. Meanwhile, she’s still dealing with her drunk dad (Shea Whigham, in a very Shea Whigham kind of role) at home, as he keeps pointing his service revolver at people on their block. It’s Chekhov’s drunk loaded gun! And everyone keeps talking about Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), the boy who killed his dad, and wondering what would drive a boy to kill his nice father, a respectable policeman? And it’s like, well, I can think of something. But it’s the 1960s! No one has those filthy thoughts! Also, everyone has terrible New Jersey accents. Just know that in every scene, at least one person sounds like an SNL character playing “New Jersey” ironically.
Lady Macbeth proved William Oldroyd’s talent for managing tone, pacing, and style, all of which are critical to the success of Eileen. In lesser hands, the third act derangement would send Eileen straight into the bin with films like The Village or Remember Me (an all-timer in the “utterly demented third act reveals” sweepstakes). But Oldroyd has a tight grip on the reins and does not lose control of his film, nor does he ever deviate from the central performances of McKenzie and Hathaway. Remaining grounded in the budding relationship between Eileen and Rebecca makes everything that comes after feel of a piece with the beginning of the film, a natural extension of everything everyone isn’t saying about Lee Polk’s dad, and Eileen’s inherent weirdness. It’s a tonal tightrope, and Oldroyd walks it masterfully, matched by the perfectly calibrated performances of his leading ladies. Also, cinematographer Ari Wegner shoots the film like she was freezing her tits off in New Jersey at the time, a gray chilliness appropriate to Eileen’s depressing life and town.
It’s fun to be surprised by a film, to think you know where it’s going, only to end up somewhere fresh and unexpected. It’s even more fun if that trip is unhinged; like, yes, officer I meant to drive into this lake, I live with the watermen now. Oldroyd does such a good job in the setup, Hathaway is so perfect as the too cool for this sh-tty town femme fatale, McKenzie is just the right amount of girl next door dreaming of murder, everyone is on the same page, they all have a hand on the wheel, gleefully steering into the lake.
Eileen is not what you think. Do you think it looks like a classy period drama featuring sad lesbians? Do you think it looks like the kind of film everyone will say they saw but, you suspect, no one has actually watched? Do you look at Eileen and think, Oscar bait? Joke’s on you, bud, Eileen is the babysitter who has sex on the sofa while your kids are upstairs. Eileen lies on her resumé. Eileen just spit in your coffee, and you will thank Eileen for the pleasure. Eileen is not what you are expecting. Eileen is more than we deserve.