Eileen, the first picture from William Oldroyd since Lady Macbeth, which made Florence Pugh a star in 2016, is more defined by what it isn’t than what it is because Eileen is more focused on the past than on the present. This story is based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s book of the same name and has a screenplay written by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, zigs where you expect it to zag, always contradicting the audience’s expectations. The director’s earlier film, Eileen, also exercises restraint. What seems to be an almost Carol-like tale of forbidden love in the 1960s takes a sharp turn into something much more unexpected than anyone could have anticipated. Eileen is aware of the direction you believe it will go, and she deviates from the assumptions.
Thomasin McKenzie plays Eileen, and she lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father, played by Shea Whigham. Her father finds a way to insult her in the most cutting way with every interaction they have, and Eileen works at a jail in the 1960s in Massachusetts. When we first meet Eileen, she is sitting in a car by herself, observing a young couple as they flirt with one another. This reveals that Eileen lives a very lonely life. She has a strong desire for someone who can understand her, but she also wants the physical components of the relationship that come along with it. Her life has devolved into a routine of going to her jail work, bringing her alcoholic father a bottle of wine, returning home to be scolded by her father, and repeating the process the following day.
But Eileen may have found what she’s looking for in Dr Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), a prison psychologist who thinks differently than the rest of the facility and befriends Eileen, opening her up more than the meek person she’s seemed to be until now. Dr St. John is a prison psychologist who thinks differently than the rest of the facility and befriends Eileen. Eileen and Dr St. John go out to a bar, which is bathed in red neon light, as they learn more about each other and decide to dance with each other in a scene that is beautifully structured and features gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner (The Wonder, The Power of the Dog). In this scene, they both decide to dance with each other. A man tries to join in on their conversation while they enjoy each other’s company, which prompts the excellent doctor to punch the man in the face because she is unwilling to put up with nonsense of this nature. Oldroyd gives us much information about the doctor without telling us much about her. The doctor is a lady who lives in secrecy, yet it is evident that she can protect herself and get what she wants.
Eileen, like Lady Macbeth, is about the limitations placed on women in the past and about battling against such limitations. Eileen and Dr St. John let themselves embrace their happiness despite the world around them, similar to what happens in Lady Macbeth. We are also being taught a story of generational trauma, whether through Eileen being repeatedly ridiculed by her father or a young prisoner with something to hide. Both of these stories are conveyed to us in this episode. But despite appearances, this is not what Eileen is all about, not even close. The narrative of Moshfegh suddenly makes a sharp swing to the right when it is least expected, which opens up this story and expands what is truly going on intriguingly. However, this change makes perfect sense given the context, and although it may catch the audience by surprise at first, once the dust has settled, it is clear that this choice was the correct one.
In a manner that is subtle and humble, McKenzie portrays the part of Eileen, who is hesitant, and yet we know that there is more to her character than meets the eye because we see her when no one else does. It is especially entertaining to see McKenzie interact with Hathaway’s Dr St. John, a figure who commands the attention of everyone in the room and is completely aware of who she is, even though the other people in the room find her to be a mystery. Also great is Whigham, defiantly awful in every scene, a constant source of insults and general meanness, to the point that, shockingly, Eileen has been able to put up with him for so long. Whigham is great because he makes Eileen’s ability to put up with him for so long seem like a miracle. Marin Ireland, who plays a mother who feels confined by the choices she has within her family and has only one important scene, may have the most impactful moment in the entire film, even though she only has one major scene. The scene involving Ireland is quite gloomy, but it illustrates the confinement that all of the important female characters in this universe believe they are subjected to.
Eileen’s greatest asset, however, is not its convincing recreation of the 1960s or its talented cast members but rather the screenplay it employs. Eileen isn’t in a hurry, much like the screenplay that Moshfegh and Goebel wrote for the movie Causeway that came out the year before, and we often just stay with the characters and watch them figure out their predicaments. For instance, during the scene in which Eileen spends Christmas Eve at Dr St. John’s house, the camera frequently takes a back seat, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in the insecurities, uncertainties, and worries that have overtaken the characters in this particular juncture. And even though Eileen is, for the most part, a background character in each scene, there are brief episodes of fantasy that reveal the active mind of a woman who is probably too settled in her life to carry out the thoughts she has.
However, spectators may be confused by Eileen’s ending because it appears this story ends just as the stakes are raised, and the plot is about to pick up speed. Although the story follows Moshfegh’s original book fairly faithfully, the conclusion feels more like an abrupt choice than the one that would make the most sense given the circumstances. However, just as is the case throughout this movie, Eileen continues to defy expectations right up to the very end, choosing to halt just as it seems the plot could be getting started.
Eileen is an unusual short narrative that morphs and changes as it progresses, playing with the viewer and giving them the opposite of what they anticipate at each turn. Eileen is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea—especially those who think they know exactly what they’re getting themselves into—but Eileen is a wonderful bit of resistance that is a joy to live inside for the duration of the show, which is ninety minutes.