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Eileen ★★★

Updated: Dec 7, 2023

Availability: In theaters nationwide. Not yet streaming and no reliable information at this time on streaming availability; see JustWatch here for future streaming options.


Not Exactly Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm


British director William Oldroyd’s “Eileen” is two stories, two films one might say, and you should attend to both—if only to decide whether, as a viewer, you’ve been entertained and informed in some reasonable Hollywood way, or whether, like some of the characters you’ve been following, you’ve been exploited. It’s not an easy call.

 

The town is a trap.

 

Based on the 2015 prize-winning novel by American author Ottessa Moshfegh (who with her husband wrote the screenplay), the stories are set in a small town in Massachusetts in 1964 that has seen better days, fallen on hard times. It could be Springsteen’s New Jersey, John Mellencamp’s Pennsylvania, or J.D. Vance’s Middletown, Ohio. People still live and work there, but law enforcement is the major employer, and its spaces—the bar, the homes, the boys’ correctional facility (“the prison”)—are dingy and claustrophobic. The town is a trap.


Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), above, is trapped in a dingy, small Massachusetts town,

enabling her alcoholic, abusive father (Shea Whigham).


At 24, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, Elsa in 2019’s “Jojo Rabbit”) has worked as a secretary in the prison for “3 or 4” years, the indeterminacy of her employment a metaphor for her floundering existence, her lack of direction. She lives with and cares for her father, forced to retire early from the police force he headed and a hard-drinker who spends his days confined to a living-room recliner. He treats his daughter as a person who just “takes up space.” She has no friends, no companions, and no boyfriend. Abused at work and at home, Eileen, like her father and other townspeople, is embittered. She lacks self-confidence and whatever else it might take for her to imagine another life in another place. Instead, she indulges in fantasies, sexual—and otherwise, and stashes her cash earnings in a cookie tin in the attic.


Until Rebecca comes to town. Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), who has been rather inexplicably hired as the new prison psychologist, is everything Eileen is not: educated (“Harvard, not Radcliffe”), fashionably dressed, blond and beautiful and sexual, brimming with self-composure, clever and witty and authoritative, and physical. Harold Hill will rescue River City, Phyllis Dietrichson will enliven Walter Neff’s quotidian existence (in “Double Indemnity [1944]), and Rebecca will…well, what will she do?


Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), right, brings a new way of being to the floundering Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie), meeting her in a local dive bar on a cold winter's night.


The end credits, rolling over a freeze-frame morphed into black and white, invoke film noir—providing one answer, and there’s no doubt that Rebecca’s style suggests the genre’s femme fatale. Any such association would seem preposterous in the film’s first hour. Eileen is smitten. And so, rather curiously, is Rebecca, who finds in Eileen’s “plain face” an attractive “turbulence,” a description that will prove apropos.

 

Assisted by a shameless soundtrack, Act 2 is nothing less than a delightful love story.

 

Act 2—the 2nd half hour of the first “film”—is nothing less than a delightful love story, over-the-top to be sure, and assisted by a shameless soundtrack that includes Pat Boone singing “Secret Love.” It’s as powerful and compelling a tale of instant attraction as any Hollywood has recently produced, an emotional bond (or deep infatuation) equal to that of Jackson Maine and struggling artist Aily in “A Star is Born” (2018), and not unlike the connection between a department store clerk and an alluring socialite in “Carol” (2015), which is set in the same sexually repressive era.

 

You won’t be prepared for the story’s sudden turn.

 

You’ll want that romance, or whatever it is, to last, and to ripen, and to become the catalyst for the new life that Eileen deserves. As a film-goer, you’ll also understand that it can’t be that simple; there is likely something else at play. Try as you might, you won’t be prepared for the story’s sudden turn. As those noir credits go by, you may think back to Eileen’s fantasies, or to the subtleties of her relationship with her father, or to the sordid sexual dynamics of a town that makes the 1956 novel “Peyton Place” seem tame by comparison.


Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new prison psychologist, might be the femme fatale

for Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie).


You may understand Rebecca as something more, or less, than she at first appears to be, and it won’t be difficult to summon praise for the extraordinary performances of McKenzie and Hathaway—and Marin Ireland as Mrs. Polk. Perhaps it will all come together, and you’ll appreciate “Eileen” as one coherent story with a twist that seems, as you think about it, inevitable. And maybe not. Maybe you’ll just feel used.

 

Date: 2023

Director: William Oldroyd; screenplay adapted by Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel from Moshfegh’s eponymous 2015 novel

Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Marin Ireland, Shea Whigham, Sam Nivola

Country: United States

Language: English

Runtime: 97 minutes

Other Awards: 3 nominations to date


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