At 24 years old, Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) should be out in the world living her best life. Instead, she is a slave to her dismal routine. Eileen works as a secretary in a youth prison by day and spends her nights at home looking after her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham).
Even though it’s winter, Eileen drives around town with her windows down because her car fills up with noxious fumes. But sadly, that old jalopy isn’t nearly as toxic as Eileen’s abusive dad. He’s been a wreck since he retired from the police force, and now he spends his days and nights in a boozy stupor. He’s a scrappy old misogynist who enjoys crushing his daughter’s self-esteem.
When Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway) starts working at the prison, her presence sparks something inside Eileen. Rebecca is the smart, sexy, and confident woman she strives to be, and her presence becomes the sole ray of sunshine in her gloomy world.
But the ladies’ friendship offers more than Eileen bargained for. And before long, she must choose between returning to her dull old ways or embracing a world of danger and excitement.
Eileen is an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel of the same name. The film begins as a thoughtful and measured drama before flipping a switch to full-on thriller mode. The tonal shift works because Eileen is an astute character study at its core, and you want to see how these people react when thrown into challenging situations.
Eileen is a short watch that goes by in the blink of an eye, but I would have happily sat down to watch these characters for another 40 minutes. The film still packs plenty of excellent performances and challenging themes into its svelte 97-minute running time. It examines female agency, the criminal justice system, and the manifestations of sexual repression. At its core, this is a story about facades: the masks people choose to wear and the masks they’re forced to hide behind.
Eileen is young, sheltered, and figuring out who she is. The woman she wants to be is a far cry from the person she is when the movie begins. A sexual hunger gnaws at her and she struggles to contain those urges. At one point, Eileen shoves a snowball down her dress to cool off her overwhelming impulses.
It should go without saying, there’s nothing wrong with embracing your sexuality. But this movie is set in the early ‘60s, and nothing frightened society more than a woman with sexual agency. Eileen channels her stifled sexual energy into violent fantasies.
Rebecca enters the film with a splash. She’s confident and assertive and isn’t afraid to be seen as “a difficult woman.” The character is so comfortable in her own skin that when she enters a scene with Eileen they’re practically two different species – a shark swimming around in the kiddie pool.
Eileen passively cruises down life’s highway while Rebecca makes her own forks in the road. The difference between the women is Rebecca intentionally crafted her own mask. She knows the difference between who she is on the inside and how she wants people to see her.
Hathaway playing Rebecca is like a Russian doll; an actor playing a character playing a character. Rebecca’s every word and gesture is performative. She’s always playing a role, maneuvering people’s opinions of her like the pieces on a chess board.
McKenzie and Hathaway deliver fine-tuned performances, and seeing them share the screen is a treat. We’re witnessing one of this generation’s great talents working with a star on the rise. It’s like Jordan in his prime taking the court with Kobe when he was still a young buck. One day McKenzie will be the megastar sharing some of her shine with Hollywood’s next big thing.
Eileen is one of my favourite discoveries so far at Sundance this year. Director William Oldroyd has put together a movie that checks many boxes for this film lover.
Eileen looks gorgeous. DP Ari Wegner’s transportive cinematography took me back to another era. Eileen’s rich, saturated visuals feel as authentic as watching a relative’s old home movies. The warm lighting and sensual close-ups are intoxicating. And Richard Reed Parry’s jazzy score hit me with the warm fuzzies. On top of that, the film is full of soulful love ballads from the ‘50s and ‘60s. This whole movie is a vibe.
McKenzie and Hathaway’s finely tuned performances are worth the price of admission but there’s plenty more to enjoy in Oldroyd’s riveting second feature.