Directed by William Oldroyd
Written by Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, adapted from the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh
Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway and Shea Whigham
Classification N/A; 98 minutes
Opens in select theatres Dec. 8
It is the dead of winter in an unnamed bedroom community of Boston, circa 1964, and everyone is miserable. Perhaps there are some genuinely happy folk orbiting the space of the twentysomething Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie), a clerk working in a local juvenile prison, but it’s unlikely. This is a world of bars (either of the jail or dive variety), blanketed by harsh New England accents and harsher snow squalls.
But even the deadest of souls would have a hard time reaching Eileen’s depths of misery. When not pushing paper at work, the single woman is entertaining fantasies of increasingly bitter darkness: from screwing the anonymously bland guard who is stationed outside her office to shooting her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham) dead to blowing her own brains out. Life, for Eileen, is just that special kind of misery. And she doesn’t seem to have the desire or motive to change.
Except for one day when Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a Harvard-certified psychiatrist with a swishy Manhattan accent and fashion sense to match, waltzes into the prison’s offices. Rebecca has big ideas for the place, as well as eyes for Eileen. Or at least she has some kind of ambiguous interest – which is enough for Eileen to swap her dark daydreams for those with a more alluring sense of the unknown.
In the bruising hands of director William Oldroyd, Eileen first appears to be a sharp and nasty character study cum grim romance, as if the filmmaker was mixing his own enjoyably venomous 2016 drama Lady Macbeth with Todd Haynes’s 2015 melodrama Carol. (In its Christmas-timed Massachusetts setting, Eileen might also make a good, but actually terrible, double bill with Alexander Payne’s new dramedy The Holdovers.) But then Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel’s screenplay, adapted from Moshfegh’s own Booker Prize-shortlisted novel, swerves into a gothic horror show that throws the endeavour brutally, fatally off-course.
It is easy to understand how Moshfegh’s third-act turn might work better on the page. This is a pivot that could be read as the grim comeuppance to hundreds of pages’ worth of sly narrative misdirection. Especially when that story is conveyed by the unreliable perspective of a first-person narrator. But Oldroyd’s film lacks such a device, which makes the arrival of a gruesome and rather silly discovery late in the film hard to swallow, if not stomach. Is this lurid pulp, or something more elevated? The director, and his writers, cannot quite seem to come to an agreement.
The performances nearly save the film from itself. Hathaway, perhaps the most fierce and determined performer of her Hollywood cohort, delivers another highly alluring character that is just two beats away from being caricature. Rebecca is a woman of icy purrs and batted eyelashes, not so much a femme fatale as a femme dead on arrival. Hathaway knows exactly the right amount of verve needed to keep the creation from sliding into full-tilt parody.
Mackenzie, meanwhile, pulls off one helluva New England accent for a New Zealander, while also keeping Eileen’s naivety walking the fine line between innocence and despair. Even Whigham, the busiest character actor in Hollywood, gives some unexpected grace notes to a familiar deadbeat-drunk shtick.
Yet Eileen, the film, is ultimately a more dispiriting thing to encounter than Eileen, the character. Both will fill you with despair, but only Oldroyd’s film will leave you shaking your head as to what might have been, had the potential not been squandered.