Perhaps the most boldly audacious, pulpy, and sensual flick to come out of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Eileen is certainly going to attract a varying fleet of opinions. With sleek and stylish performances laden with lasciviousness, Thomasin McKenzie, of Last Night in Soho and Jojo Rabbit fame, and the one and only Anne Hathaway bloom with tantalizing chemistry. They make for the dual driving force of this inspired period noir and when coupled with director William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth), they become quite a mesmerizing and masterful unit that will assuredly keep you enthralled from beginning to end.
Based on the acclaimed 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen follows its namesake, Eileen Dunlop (McKenzie), a young woman in 1960s New England living with her alcoholic ex-cop of a father (Shea Whigham) who spends his days drowning in liquor and waving his gun at the neighborhood kids. Sexually frustrated and socially awkward, Eileen shuffles through her mundane days daydreaming of sex while working a stale job as a secretary at a juvenile boy’s penitentiary. Her monotonous life takes a turn when the alluring and magnetic Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Hathaway) moves in as the new resident psychologist.
Anne Hathaway enters this drab environment as a Monroe-esque, long-legged, blonde siren with a silver tongue and endless allure. Eileen becomes quickly enamored with the older woman, knees buckling quickly under her charming spell as their newfound work friendship teeters on the precipice of an erotic, will-they-won’t-they romance. The younger Eileen suddenly takes up smoking after Rebecca offers her a cigarette, and soon makes the effort to dress nicer and do her hair and makeup, if almost to mirror the older temptress. The two tentatively test out and explore each other until they dig too deep into the gruesome case of a young inmate named Lee Polk (Sam Nivola). When faced with a crime after crossing the point of no return, Eileen and Rebecca must put their secret bond to the ultimate test.
Eileen is a visually stunning feat thanks to acclaimed cinematographer Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), who skillfully captures the essence and feel of a chilly yet nostalgic 1960s Massachusetts winter. The weather is relentless and the harsh landscape lends no help to the dull lifestyle Eileen and her mean drunk father find themselves in. Eileen seeks some sort of warmth, any kind of validation, however warped it may be, in this desolate environment. She finds that longing in Rebecca’s eyes and in between her lips. When the two ladies take to the dance floor after a few drinks at a local bar, abusive fathers and dead-end jobs seem to be forgotten as they sway gently together. Composer Richard Reed Parry aids in embellishing the time period and noir aesthetics of Eileen with a somber yet hypnotizing score, creating a lovely backdrop in a very believable world.
Similarities to Todd Haynes’ Carol are inevitable – a young, doe-eyed brunette is enchanted by an older, experienced blonde in front of a snowy and vintage winter backdrop. Adapted for the screen by original author Ottessa Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebel, Eileen makes it clear early on that this period-set, sapphic tale of forbidden desire is of its own kind. There is an eerie aroma of lust in the air, one that can only lead to great danger. The film is keen to lead viewers astray, with director William Oldroyd toying with surprising dashes of surrealism to keep the audience on their toes. In this build-up comes a totally shocking, second-act tonal shift that, with Oldroyd’s precise direction and Hathaway’s dedicated performance, puts the film on an entirely new trajectory in but a single sentence.
This late and sudden turn is sure to give some viewers tonal whiplash, slashing potential expectations. This is where Eileen will either make or break its audience. There is plenty of good that follows for those that decide to hold in their gasps and move forward with the story, as it prompts an extremely impressive monologue by Marin Ireland as Mrs. Polk – the mom of the same Lee Polk from the penitentiary. Though a striking reveal, it’s an element that plays a major part in what makes Eileen such a twisted, fun ride. The film smoothly flies by in its tight 96-minute runtime. However, its ending comes up quickly in what some might describe as a “thud.” When the titular vintage title card reappears at the end, it’s easy to come away hoping there was an extra 10 minutes tacked on to flesh out a seemingly rushed conclusion.
As somewhat lacking as this finale may be, it still carries a lot of truth and is not a huge hindrance to the overall movie compared to everything that superbly comes together to create an enjoyable, seductive noir. Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie play off each other effortlessly, giving arguably career-best performances in their portrayal of these wanton, stylish, and slightly unhinged femme fatales. The tension and suspense they create together is worthy of obsession. Eileen proves to be continuously engaging and flourishing with technical talent. By the time that needle drop occurs and the story one might think they’re following jackknifes into something else entirely, the film makes for a more than welcome, refreshing treat.