Review: Eileen

A moody, retro, psychological thriller.

24-year old wallflower Eileen exists in an unfulfilled void between her job at the local prison and living with her alcoholic father. But when co-worker Rebecca arrives at the prison, Eileen’s life is about to be electrified.

Directed by William Oldroyd (Lady MacBeth), Eileen is adapted from the 2015 novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh, starring Thomasin McKenzie, Shea Whigham, and Anne Hathaway. It follows the near-invisible Eileen, a young woman trapped between a vigil of her less-than-appreciating father, and her job at a young boys’ prison. Without friends, without love of any kind, she exists in a passive limbo while her mind plays out wild fantasies and brutal flights of fancy.

It is an atmospheric and moody experience.

The first thing one notices as Eileen begins, is a deliberate film-grade grain. The title card and credits look old, the film looks as though it were produced in the 1970s or 80s. As it turns out the film was shot digitally, but a special lens was used to give it a grainier look. With the film set in 1960’s Massachusetts in winter, this decision gives the film’s interior scenes a warmth when they aren’t outside in the frozen cold or the grey prison environments. Those are certainly stark and uncompromising by comparison.
But what warmth there is visually, there is little within the story itself. We see Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit) as an isolationist; not engaging others, squirreling away money earned from her work, keeping her father’s constant supply of alcohol flowing. She exists in a yearning, empty existence of her own making, and even her father knows and tells her this.

Her mind is still malleable, despite her age, ready to be influenced by any raw experience she might encounter. None have been forthcoming until Rebecca arrives.

One of the film’s warmer moments

Anne Hathaway disappears in the role of Rebecca, psychologist who starts work at this prison. Driving a bright red car, oozing confidence and charisma the likes of which Eileen has never encountered before. Eileen is immediately smitten. But it might be that Rebecca is not the influence Eileen needs… Or maybe she is?

The film is subtle, and the film is very slowly paced. A lot of time is dedicated to Eileen’s emotional baggage being thrown down by her father (Shea Whigham performing the role well) repeatedly, hammering over and over that Eileen is lost. Meaningless.
Eileen and Rebecca’s relationship develops in often fleeting momentary interactions. Scenes that load Eileen with emotions born from pure assumption. In fact, a great deal of the emotional weight is through assumptions made between characters and not spoken. Both single women, the attraction feels real through Eileen’s perspective, yet is everything as it seems?

The rest of the plot follows one of the prison’s inmates, and our characters’ agencies run along a sort of murder investigation story. How procedural this might seem at first, it is not.

Not everyone will appreciate the film’s slow pacing and subtle storytelling. It has a retro vibe, following the style of older films, both visually and in its storytelling. The film has a good score and good performances, and heaps of atmosphere and intrigue as it leads towards its final, intense act.

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