Thursday, April 18, 2024

Movie Review (Sundance 2023): ‘Eileen’ is Two-Thirds of a Great Movie  

Director: William Oldroyd

Writers: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Thomasin McKenzie, Shea Whigham, Jefferson White

Synopsis: A woman’s friendship with a new co-worker at the prison facility where she works takes a sinister turn.

Few things are more frustrating than a movie capable of greatness that suddenly takes a sharp left turn in its third act to become a story that frustrates more than it satisfies, and that’s the case of Eileen, a mostly solid drama thriller based on the award-winning Ottessa Moshfegh novel. The character study work is excellent, the performances are all fine, and the gorgeous cinematography by Ari Wegner gives a vivid sense of place. For a long while, Eileen has the absorbing slow burn effect of the similarly themed Carol, with its period Christmas setting, and two female characters finding a strong emotional connection with each other. 

The story tells of a young woman named Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) who works at a men’s prison in 1960s Massachusetts. Her job doesn’t offer much excitement day to day, to the point where she imagines herself having sex with one of the security guards. Eileen’s life at home isn’t any better, her alcoholic father often screaming at her from the top of a staircase. She needs something to shake things up, and soon, in comes Dr. Miss Rebecca St. John, the prison’s newest prison psychologist played by a blonde Anne Hathaway. They share a flirtatious glance as soon as Rebecca is introduced to her co-workers, and soon thereafter they’re chatting in empty hallways and storage rooms, Rebecca lighting up a cigarette and projecting an aura of confidence and authority. They meet up for a drink, go dancing. Eileen thinks she might be falling in love.

Director William Oldroyd (2016’s Lady Macbeth) infuses the first riveting hour with a delicate, absorbing pace, allowing Rebecca to remain just enough of a mystery to have the viewer become entranced with her the same way Eileen is. The characters slowly reveal themselves to be more complicated than they appear on the surface, Rebecca clearly uninterested in the men who come on to her, wanting instead to hold Eileen until the late hours of the night on that dance floor. Hathaway and McKenzie are fantastic in this stretch of the movie, feeling authentic to the time and place and in their affection for each other. Hathaway particularly hasn’t played a character this sensual and mysterious in years.  

When Rebecca invites Eileen over to her house late at night, Eileen thinks she might get lucky with the older psychologist, and during an intimate chat around the kitchen table, the flirtations increase to the point where the two might even kiss. But then that crazy twist occurs, Rebecca reveals something she’s done almost no viewer will see coming, and it’s at this moment that the film Eileen goes off the rails into dark thriller territory that is semi-interesting to be sure, but also ultimately brings the movie down, especially on an emotional level. The decision Rebecca makes feels forced, not entirely true to her character, and not keeping in line with all the events that came before. What Eileen herself goes on to do is even more troubling, and out of character, her hallucinations somehow manifesting into a moment of shocking violence.

In some ways, this third act shift might have worked if the screenwriters Goebel and Moshfesh had dealt with it in a more nuanced way and with more time spent with the characters. This is a criticism I rarely throw at movies these days, but I would’ve liked Eileen to be twenty minutes longer because as it stands with its brief ninety-seven-minute running time, the film falls pretty flat at the end. You’re supposed to believe that one of the main characters has enjoyed an epiphany that will send her life in a better direction, but the final scenes go by so quickly that it’s difficult to be emotionally affected by the story’s outcome.

I read Moshfegh’s novel in college, and the weakness of the film’s third act plays much better in the first-person written form through Eileen’s eyes, Moshfegh allowing that later scene of suspense to breathe over the course of many pages. The motivations of the characters are better fleshed out, too, but in the movie, everything happens too abruptly to care about the genre elements of the story. Our interest and hearts are with that intriguing relationship between Eileen and Rebecca, and that becomes lost in the final act, Hathaway’s presence especially absent when we want to see more of her.

Alas, there is lots to like about Eileen, with plenty of standout achievements at the technical level as well as a variety of excellent performances. Hathaway, as I said, is divine, so charismatic throughout the first half and clearly relishing this role. McKenzie, a New Zealand actress who’s been great in films like Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit, Last Night in Soho, and The Power of the Dog, is a tremendous talent you can’t look away from, and who gives Eileen the right balance of vulnerability and danger. I liked Eileen; I’d go as far as to say it’s two-thirds of a great movie. But it’s nowhere near Carol great, that’s for sure. 


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