William Oldroyd’s sophomore feature his based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s eponymous novel. The American novelist’s second book My Year of Rest and Relaxation has become a sensation, and there is a film adaptation on its way. Lead actress Anne Hathaway has described Eileen as “Carol [Todd Haynes, 2015] meets Reservoir Dogs [Quentin Tarantino, 1992]”. What an intriguing juxtaposition of films!
Thomasin McKenzie stars as the titular character, a mousy young woman working at a juvenile prison facility in Boston during the early 1960s. She has an incredibly drab life, and lives with her abusive alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham). Eileen attempts to keep her sexual fantasies at bay: she stuffs snow down her pants to literally cool it down. But she has a rich fantasy life throughout the film, vaguely recalling the final sequence of You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Rmsay, 2017). Rebecca (Hathaway) arrives as the new psychologist for the facility, giving the young woman the attention she clearly needs in her life. Eileen becomes obsessed with the shrink, raising the question: does she want to be her, or does she simply want to have sex with 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 delivery isn’t that far off from her character in Last Night in Soho (Edgar Wright, 2021), but Eileen is more timid and internal.
Eileen’s Boston accent has faced some criticism, but she is believably as this quiet young woman, and any imperfections are barely 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 role later on in the film, which flips the entire narrative on its head.
On the surface, Eileen 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. The fact that both films are set during Christmas will also 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 will keep viewers debating for a long time. Eileen also has a touch of Hitchcock and the noir films of the 1950s.
Overall, Eileen is a challenging film with complex and barely likeable characters. There is not an ounce of fat on the story, running at 90 minutes, and leaving the audience wanting more.
Eileen has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.