Eileen is a staid, repressed film, much like its protagonist. But there are hints of a burgeoning freedom. Shocking imaginary moments, till it’s not, interspersed with a vastly uneasy calm and anchored by Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway’s performances, make Eileen a subdued film that avoids answering questions yet a quietly provocative watch.
Written by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh and directed by William Oldroyd, the movie stars Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen. She works at a youth facility, and her life turns on its head when Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) arrives as the kids’ new counselor. There’s something caged and lurking about Eileen and moments that show she’s not okay even before Rebecca’s arrival.
Eileen Pushes an Off-Putting Awkwardness
Eileen watches two lovers in a car have sex from the vantage point of her backfiring car. She grabs a handful of dirty ice off the ground and puts it between her legs to soothe herself. This fits the bill for what people argued the governess was in Turn of the Screw. That repression leaves her fantasizing in the middle of work, even masturbating while no one sees her. The direction plays into that discomfort for the viewer. While she’s a voyeur, so is the audience.
When she arrives home, it’s apparent her father, Jim (Shea Whigham), a retired cop, is judgemental and controlling. Everything around her looks colorless and dreary, like it’s barely hanging on. That changes with Dr. Rebecca’s arrival. She’s stylish, poised, and stunning, especially to the starved Eileen. So, the two soon become friends. Though her father lectured her to “get a life,” it’s clear he’s not happy when she goes out drinking with Rebecca and comes home inebriated.
Different Tensions Exist Together
The tension in the film is uncomfortable. Viewers wonder when Rebecca will emerge from her cocoon and what she will be after that emergence. There’s also the tension between her and her father and between her and her new bestie. Her miserable, starved life makes it easy to anticipate her response when someone as vibrant as Rebecca shows her positive attention. Everyone else only has insults for her, or she does not exist to them.
But the sinister lurks, building the unease that keeps audiences holding their breath. Eileen’s father constantly mentions her sister, holding her up as a comparison for what he feels Eileen lacks. But the sister never shows up in the film. There are implications of other horrors but no clear answer—just a feeling. With Eileen, she’s like a blank canvas or an idea that has not fully formed. For better or worse, whoever notices her can mold her.
Thomasin McKenzie is amazing. Her portrayal is hollow yet hungry in equal measure. She is not mousy; after all, she occasionally challenges her father. But it feels like there’s no force behind it yet. It lacks will behind it, and McKenzie delivers this. Anne Hathaway never misses a performance. So, she gives a mesmerizing turn here. Her femme fatale confidence spellbinds Eileen and moviegoers.
Eileen is stiffness and discomfort as the movie feels like a powder keg of potential havoc. That undercurrent and its disconcerting exterior and performances keep eyes glued to each scene. A lot of questions go unanswered. Experiences trump explanations, but Eileen is the type of film that works best in obscurity.