Directed by William Oldroyd | Written by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, based on a novel by Moshfegh | 97 min | ▲▲▲△△ | For rent on VOD and digital
Here’s a much-anticipated 2023 film that I had on pretty good authority was going to open in cinemas locally, but it’s just dropped on digital platforms for rent. It arrives freighted with hype as a hot, lesbian thriller — a reductive take, for sure, for an unpredictable, entertainingly trashy noir.
People toss around the term “Hitchockian” on the regular to describe any suspense drama, any potboiler with icy blondes, sex, violence, and desperation. Hell, I’ve done it. And it lightly applies here, too, a film that sizzles with queer obsession, even if it eventually takes a bonkers turn and refuses to tie up plot threads.
Eileen is played by Thomasin McKenzie, an actor who is 23, here playing older but her screen presence feels more like just out of high school. It’s the early 1960s and she’s working at a prison in Massachusetts as a “secretary,” though she’s mostly doing filing and taking out the garbage. She’s lonely and horny, fantasizing about men she works with and particular prisoners at the facility.
Meanwhile, she’s having to deal with her father, Jim (Shea Whigham), a miserable former police chief fond of booze and waving his sidearm around, frequently attracting the attention of the local constabulary who always give him a pass for his bad behaviour and terrorizing his daughter.
New at the prison is Dr Rebecca St John (Anne Hathaway), a psychologist, part of a new program to help prisoners. She’s blonde, gorgeous, and in charge. She takes an interest in the case of a young man who murdered his father while she gets friendly with Eileen, inspiring the younger woman with a cocktail of cosmopolitan confidence and style. That St John is so much older is clearly not really a problem for Eileen who shifts her interest to this fascinating, modern woman.
So far, so hot. The echoes of Carol, and of Patricia Highsmith generally, bounce around in this production and Oldroyd, best known for turning Florence Pugh into a star in Lady Macbeth, knows how to hook his audiences. The grainy accuracy of the era in the cinematography, sets, and costumes is further bolstered with a terrific, imposing soundtrack by Richard Reed Parry.
Then comes a top-of-the-third-act twist that throws everything out the window. It’s not entirely unseeded, but it still feels like a wild genre shift and it unbalances the movie. Whatever was before is gone and we’re in a new world. From that point on, we have two major motivators — Eileen’s burgeoning passion for Rebecca and this other, thriller element, circumstances that cast both central characters in a different light.
Eileen delivers an exciting denouement, but unfortunately the film doesn’t really stick the landing. It prefers to lean into an unearned ambiguity, providing an escape for one character but largely denying its audience much satisfaction in threads of drama it sewed previously. That said, with performers this committed and a terrific sense of place, even with those late reservations, Eileen offers plenty to enjoy.