starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland
written by Luke Goebel & Ottessa Moshfegh, based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh
directed by William Oldroyd
by Angelo Muredda Thomasin McKenzie gives the armpit-sniffing Mary Katherine Gallagher a run for her money as the eponymous weirdo loner in William Oldroyd's Eileen, an admirably icky take on the Ottessa Moshfegh novel of the same name, adapted by the author and her partner, Luke Goebel. An awkward, horned-up femcel, Moshfegh's Eileen is the kind of ostensibly normal but secretly maladjusted creep you'd find in a Patricia Highsmith novel--as relatable as she is perverse. While Highsmith's work has lent itself to any number of successful treatments (including Carol, the film this one most closely resembles in its melding of pulp and queer desire), Moshfegh's text is less of an obvious sell for the movies, fixated as it is on its protagonist's unruly gut feelings, which frequently extend to her actual bowel movements. While Eileen, with its lovingly upholstered retro-1960s aesthetic, is a tidier affair than the novel, it's to Oldroyd's credit that he realizes something of its shabby outlook on the human experience, where violence is your best, if not only, ticket out of your crummy small-town New England existence.
Set during what promises to be another gloomy Christmas, the film follows Eileen for about a week in her undistinguished life as an unpopular secretary at a correctional facility for young men, where she secretly lusts after guards and prisoners alike. Eileen's humdrum routine of pining at work and caring for her paranoid alcoholic ex-cop father Jim (Shea Whigham) is interrupted amidst a parking lot trash run by the arrival of the worldly new prison psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), whose red sports car and tailored formalwear immediately cut through Eileen's stylistic palette of mustard and brown hand-me-down sweaters. The luminous Rebecca takes a shine to the typically antisocial Eileen, a wallflower who literally clings to the walls at the back of each room in assemblies and parties, cracking open a door into a world of possibility and romance before showing her hand and implicating Eileen in an unexpected criminal enterprise involving one of their charges at the prison.
Like a short story stretched to feature-length, the wispy narrative hinges on Rebecca's moment of revelation--but as in his grimy feature debut Lady Macbeth, Oldroyd has a strong grasp on the dreary, desaturated textures of his protagonist's domain. Although there's much less in the way of bawdy toilet realism than in the novel, which may well be contemporary fiction's most extensive depiction of constipation and expulsion, the film's Eileen is still plenty wretched. Whether she's creeping at a necking couple on the beach before compulsively shoving snow down her pants in the opening set-piece, sniffing her fingers after an interrupted act of workplace masturbation, or plucking a public hair from a bar of soap at a dingy house that may or may not be Rebecca's, she's in touch with her baser instincts.
So is the film, though Oldroyd's allowances for these moments of beastly life sit somewhat at odds with his slick period recreation. From its art direction to the costumes, among other aesthetic choices, Eileen gives off the not altogether appropriate air of quality cinema. Oldroyd's fussy craftsmanship, from the embossed opening-credits font to the pervasive jazz score, feels aspirational in a way that even Eileen, who views the Ivy-League-educated Rebecca as her ticket to the big city, but who can't be bothered to buy herself nice clothes that aren't inherited from her dead mother or fix her dad's exhaust-belching car, couldn't muster. Hathaway, who was famously deemed too Oscar-thirsty herself in her flawless awards run in 2012, is a fitting avatar of sorts for the filmmaker: She's a bit more convincing in her seductive, poised phase early on than the more unhinged state in which the last act finds her.
McKenzie, who always looks like a pale transplant from a Victorian-era ghost story, fares a bit better despite being basically miscast as a feral creature decked out in a wardrobe full of humble cardigans. She overcomes her definitively bad Massachusetts accent, whose strange placelessness is not without a certain uncanny appeal, to play up Eileen's touching, dopey earnestness around Rebecca and stingy skepticism around everyone else. If you're not quite sure you believe Rebecca when she tells her there's a "beautiful turbulence" to her face--which may be a lie to butter her up, anyway--you do at least buy that there's more to her ghostly visage than meets the eye.