A Slender Thriller With a Few Terrific Performances

Feb 5, 2023

Starting with early frames that capture one very cold East Coast winter with cozy grain, director William Oldroyd’s gorgeous yet thin-spread drama-thriller “Eileen” looks like the kind of movie one wishes to luxuriate in. Indeed, the masterful “Lady Macbeth” director’s period piece promises to be the cinematic equivalent of a lavish fur coat at first glance, so inviting in its smoky mahogany interiors and mutedly warm color palette that it feels easy to slip into, no questions asked.
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Which is why it feels like a tragedy when “Eileen” doesn’t live up to the initial contract it draws up with its audience. It’s a deal that involves a feminine coming-of-age tale, a mysterious femme fatale she is intellectually and sexually enthralled by, and a left-field twist that sends the two off to danger’s way unexpectedly, all against the backdrop of the icy New England of the 60s. Based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, the script (by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, also collaborators on the recent “Causeway”) does have all these promising elements, to be clear. But it connects the dots between them so hurriedly that “Eileen” leaves one wondering whether there was supposed to be an additional 20 minutes to the movie somewhere that someone accidentally deleted.
Considering that “Eileen” is a recent Sundance premiere, this observation might seem odd and uncommon, with the festival usually having the opposite problem through cluttered movies begging to be shortened down to a leaner cut. But the spareness of the noir-adjacent “Eileen” increasingly feels like a bug after its chief female characters meet in the most unusual of places — a boys-only prison in Massachusetts — and embark on a journey that closely resembles “Carol” in feeling and style, full of glances, accidental touches and pregnant silences that suggest the arrival of a romance soon. Who wouldn’t want these women to be the heroes of a movie that patiently propels them to one another, through intimacy, tension and resolutions that feel organic?
“Eileen” leaves a lot to be desired in that department, but at least it moves attractively for a while, aided greatly by Ari Wegner‘s typically luscious cinematography. We get introduced to the 24-year-old titular character first, a lowly secretary in the aforesaid prison,  portrayed by the wonderful Thomasin McKenzie with a deceptively childlike and gradually ripening mystique, the kind she recently mastered in “Last Night in Soho.” Dealing with her often drunk, neighborhood nuisance ex-cop father (Shea Whigham) that she still lives with on the one side and bored by her mind-numbing job on the other, Eileen spends her days having vivid sexual fantasies, spying on happy couples’ make-out sessions and indulging in sweets, perhaps to brighten up her dull days a touch.
It all changes for the plainly dressed young girl when the utterly glamorous Rebecca (a captivating Anne Hathaway) arrives to the institution as staff psychologist. With a radiantly sculpted, Marilyn-esque blonde hairdo, form-hugging pencil skirt-suits that define her alluring walk (Hathaway truly works Olga Mills’ lustrous costume designs) and a cigarette permanently attached between her fingers, Rebecca immediately grabs the smitten Eileen’s attention, with the two often locking glances. It doesn’t take long for the newcomer to ask this quiet, strange young girl out and help her come out of her shell. Elsewhere, we learn about the arrival of a troubled young man to the prison, serving time after killing his father, wondering how he and his mother (a scene-stealing Marin Ireland) will eventually claim a slice of the overarching narrative.
The scenes in which Eileen and Rebecca start to get to know one another feel simply as wonderful as sips of fine whisky, leaving a seductive burn in one’s throat. But they are also painfully limited — in fact, there is only one sequence that shows them on a real outing when the duo go to a bar and freely dance to The Exciters’ “Tell Him” in front of prying male looks. After this tease, Rebecca inexplicably disappears from the story for an unnecessary amount of time, leaving Eileen with her annoyingly deadpan co-workers and often miserable dad. We do get to understand the young girl a little better in these segments, glancing into her soul a bit more closely while she spends time in the company of her messy father, whom she often fantasizes harming. (A request: could we retire the clichéd scenes where a quiet person imagines harm and murder she doesn’t go through with, but the audience sees anyway?) But we also do miss Rebecca awfully during this time, as well as the self-confident, glamorous person Eileen slowly grows into when she’s with her.
It feels like a bit of mischief when Rebecca reemerges and invites Eileen to her place for Christmas eve, with the young woman getting ready for the date with a high-school girl’s excitement and butterflies in her stomach. And it’s a complete shock when Rebecca reveals the real reason she’s invited Eileen, one that crosses all the professional and legal boundaries she’s supposed to establish at work.
It’s not worth spoiling this twist, somewhat unmerited and random considering that we barely see Rebecca at work and grasp enough of her professional character — again, a deficit of the movie. Similarly, it doesn’t seem all too credible when Eileen decides to help her crush who’s found herself in an unexpected criminal pickle. Because we don’t see them together enough, their newfound accord feels unearned, despite the leads’ utmost commitment. Which is to say the ending of the movie sadly fizzles. Through another mild twist, the point it makes is clear: Eileen is finally her own person in body and mind, no longer in need of anyone’s validation. If only “Eileen” took the scenic route to that destination, instead of jumping off a cliff to get there. [B-]
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