Stop me if this synopsis sounds familiar: A mousy young woman from an outlandishly dysfunctional family finally snaps and unleashes vengeance upon her small New England town. As much as the broad plot strokes of William Oldroyd’s Eileen obviously bring to mind Carrie — and even the film’s title card is similar — upon closer inspection, this film actually reads like a darkly curdled Carol, had the latter’s martinis been liberally laced with arsenic.
Set in 1960s Boston, just before Christmas, Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) stars as the titular Eileen, a 24-year-old woman who works at a boy’s prison and lives with her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham) in the drab suburbs. Day-to-day life is as dull and colorless as Eileen’s frumpy knit sweaters and sensible shoes, the monotony punctured by casual violence and prickles of pitch-black humor. Where other women might masturbate, Eileen thrusts snow down her skirt; in her mind, fucking the prison guard and killing her father are equally sordid (and satisfying) fantasies, shot and edited to seem like they’re actually happening. Castigated by her colleagues for being useless and her father for being invisible, Eileen amuses herself by subsisting on half-chewed candy or covertly watching strangers necking in the woods. She’s simultaneously mature beyond her years — a repressed, pinched adult with no independence or life experience — and unnervingly childish, at one point getting back at her father by hiding his shoes.
Oldroyd’s adaptation of Otessa Moshfegh’s 2015 Booker-shortlisted novel was both co-produced and co-scripted by Moshfegh herself and her husband, Luke Goebel. Perhaps because it originated as a novel, literary as well as cinematic references come to mind; there’s a particularly Shirley Jackson-esque quality in how Oldroyd presents Eileen’s domestic tableaus — all uniformly grim — as both perverse and, somehow, inevitable. Just as Merrikat and Constance have always lived in the castle, Eileen has always been someone who, in her father’s words, is “just filling space.” In both cases, formative tragedies take place off-screen, their legacy infiltrating the broken family dynamic like black mold.
But this suffocating existence is abruptly shattered when the prison hires the glamorous and worldly Rebecca St. James (Anne Hathaway) as its new psychologist. Reeking of peroxide and nicotine in her trim pencil skirts and slick red car, Rebecca is thrillingly cool and collected – that is, until she’s suddenly not. Throughout, Eileen and Rebecca circle each other like birds of prey, linked in a doom spiral of tentative attraction and fatal miscomprehension that explodes in the film’s third act. Both women are fascinated by a teenage boy, Leo Polk (Sam Nivola), who’s been detained for stabbing his father to death and refusing to name a motive. For Eileen, Leo is an object of lust as well as the embodiment of her own patricidal urges. Rebecca’s interest appears strictly professional, a guise that makes her eventual confrontation with Polk’s mother (Marin Ireland) all the more shocking.
Eileen’s narrative beats thrum with a current of dark, unflinching sensuality, whether it’s Eileen masturbating in the prison waiting room, Rebecca rubbing Polk’s back a little too long, or a lingering shot of vomit in the passenger seat. This, combined with Richard Reed Parry’s menacing and dissonant score, imbues that otherwise jolly time of year with a pure menace. Tenderness is inextricable from violence and abuse is a twisted form of love; just ask Mrs. Polk, whose wrenching confession at last empowers Eileen to make something of herself.
DIRECTOR: William Oldroyd; CAST: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland; DISTRIBUTOR: NEON; IN THEATERS: December 1; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 36 min.
Originally published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 5.