In a wintery Massachusetts town in 1964, a socially awkward twentysomething spends her days working at a boys’ juvenile prison and her nights avoiding her father, Jim Dunlop (Shea Whigham), the town’s former sheriff and a raging alcoholic. On the days leading up to Christmas, unexpected excitement arrives in the form of the prison’s new psychologist, Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), a sophisticated New Yorker who dazzles “Eileen.”
Laura's Review: B-
Director William Oldroyd ("Lady Macbeth") conjures the period and place atmosphere with authentic gray, chilly detail, but characterization and motivation have been stripped too far down in Luke Goebel’s ("Causeway") adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh's novel, the weird Eileen of the book too attractive by far and the dubious agenda Rebecca ropes her into given less grounding.
We meet Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, "Leave No Trace," "Jojo Rabbit") sitting in the old 1940’s Plymouth that fills with smoke as she drives it, now idle overlooking a Massachusetts beach at what is clearly a make-out spot. After observing a couple in another car, Eileen reaches out of her car door, grabs a handful of snow, and stuffs it down her crotch. Here is a young woman with no outlet for her desires.
At work, clad in Fair Isle sweaters and below the knee wool skirts, Eileen is treated with disdain by office manager Mrs. Murray (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), has sexual fantasies about prison guard Randy (Owen Teague, "You Hurt My Feelings," "Reptile") and spies on the teenaged Lee Polk (Sam Nivola, "White Noise"), who murdered his father, also a town policeman, in isolation. The arrival of the glamorous Rebecca St. John is made even headier when Rebecca appears to choose Eileen as her guide, remarking sarcastically on Murray’s awful Christmas pageant. After Eileen performs her regular female pat down duties for visitors, she guides Lee’s mother (Marin Ireland, "Birth/Rebirth") in for a visit monitored by St. John, one which Mrs. Polk leaves very agitated. Later, Rebecca offers Eileen a cigarette while the young woman helps her access certain files, flirtatiously suggesting the need for certain vices before suggestion she take Eileen out for a drink.
There are two significant events before the film’s out there climax, the first Eileen’s painstaking preparations for meeting Rebecca at O’Hara’s, the townie bar she’d identified as the only one in town. This is a woman who’s getting ready for a date, shaving her legs for what appears the first time in ages, finding a black dress in her late mother’s closet and applying make-up. After indulging in martinis, Rebecca invites Eileen to dance, the two women drawing every male eye in the place. Eileen wakens the next morning in her car in a pool of vomit, having almost driven into her own house. Then the second event occurs when young town cop Buck Warren (Jefferson White, TV's 'Yellowstone') arrives to tell Eileen a neighbor reported her dad was sitting in the window aiming his gun at school kids walking home and watches as the ‘Chief’ surrenders the weapon to his daughter.
While a movie should stand on its own, when the adaptation includes moments from the book in a way that makes no sense, the comparison must be made. Early on in the film, Jim tells his daughter that ‘she smells,’ a sentiment that comes across as mere cruelty. But this is actually character definition in the book, as Eileen tells us she likes to live ‘in her own funk,’ often not bathing for days on end and that is not the Eileen presented here, McKenzie only appearing shy and repressed (the actress also loses any attempt at a Boston accent early on, her voice far too genteel for the character). Hathaway, on the other hand, is delicious as St. John, a confident standout with her platinum blond hair and red Mustang in this bleak New England town. Her flirtatious, tossed away line readings and sudden departures are like the baiting of a hook.
Be prepared for a very wild and fateful Christmas Eve when Rebecca invites Eileen over to her house, a cataclysmic event there is little way to see coming which will radically change the course of Eileen’s life. I found it all too abrupt given the groundwork laid. Richard Reed Parry's ("The Nest") jazz score is another moody element in the atmosphere Oldroyd has created.
Robin's Review: B-
Neon releases "Eileen" in select theaters on 12/1/23, wide on 12/8/23.