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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Eileen

Brilliant, Dangerous, Delicious, Complicated and Liberating 



William Oldroyd’s follow-up to Lady Macbeth is a stylish and intense Hitchcockian thriller that’s the perfect film to end 2023 with a bang! Like The Holdovers, Eileen is set over Christmas Week but these films couldn’t be more different. In a small seaside town in 1964 Massachusetts, Thomasin McKenzie’s Eileen is a shy and mousy young secretary at a boy's juvenile prison with an angry fire burning inside of her as she battles loneliness, low self-esteem, and sexual frustration, all the while tending to her nasty alcoholic father’s (Shea Whigham) needs. 


The arrival of confident and glamorous new psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) awakens something in Eileen she never thought possible. Immediately seduced by Rebecca’s charm and encouragement, she starts to blossom into a more truthful version of herself as she submits to the new friendship. Christmas Eve eventually arrives and Rebecca confronts Eileen with a favor involving the dysfunctional mother (Marin Ireland) of one of the troubled inmates, forcing both Eileen and Rebecca to question how much they’re willing to break so they don’t break themselves. 


Eileen is a film that’s so much about breaking points. We all lose it and go over the edge at some point. If we haven’t, it’s only a matter of time. Some of us prefer to keep to ourselves but we all still want to be understood and Eileen’s biggest misfortune is that she’s constantly underestimated by everyone around her, including herself. The town in which she lives and grew up is extremely dead. Everyone is very lifeless. They’re zombies and when Rebecca arrives, she just illuminates life in a way Eileen has never seen before. 


“I live a little differently than most people,” she tells Eileen. There’s something about how Rebecca carries herself that’s very performative, yet it's not genuine. We all have an idea of how we’d like to be seen but we don’t all have it in us to carry ourselves that way. Some of us just don’t have the knowledge or the confidence. Rebecca does and a shifting change in Eileen becomes impossible to ignore. “You’re different these days,” her father tells her. “You’re almost interesting.” 


Eileen’s relationship with her father is a very important part of the story. A former police officer who’s well known by the town, he’s so broken inside over the loss of his job, the death of his wife, and the absence of Eileen’s sister whose seemingly happier life he rubs in Eileen's face. He no doubt treated his entire family as poorly as he treats Eileen but because she’s the only one who still puts up with him, she’s an easy target for his cruelty. He’s very sick from his drinking and Eileen puts him to bed after taking him home from the hospital. 


Eileen hates her father passionately but also loves him just as much and McKenzie shadows that tightrope between love and hate. Whigham’s performance is sensational and one I appreciated upon reflection. Here is a person who’s completely given up on everyone and everything. The capacity for human cruelty has no limits once you reach that stage. So many people inflict pain because they don’t know how to voice theirs and that’s Eileen’s father. Once upon a time, he was an infant, a child, definitely raised in the town he’s still living in. What happened? Anything could have happened to any of these people. 


McKenzie is a revelation as Eileen. She captures Eileen’s loneliness, insecurities, confidences, sexual desires, and most of all, her strangeness. Eileen is extraordinary and often off-putting but that’s what makes audiences feel drawn to her. She’s like a quieter Olivia Cooke in Thoroughbreds. Someone so convinced they're a certain kind of parasite when really, they’re simply just very very different from those around her and no one is there to tell her that that’s ok, that it’s a gift. 


Rebecca is the first real friend Eileen’s ever had. Rebecca senses an innocence in Eileen that could serve her own needs very well but she’s not manipulative. At least, I never saw her as such. She senses that if she confides in Eileen and asks for help, she’ll get it. She cares deeply for Eileen and surely sees her younger self in her but she also underestimates her like everyone else. Eileen reaches her breaking point in a moment of confessions and Rebecca realizes she may have gone too far. Rebecca nor Eileen plan what they do, they just make certain choices thinking it will go a certain way, and then when it backfires, they have to make do with the circumstances as they are.


“ I remembered that one of the very first questions I got asked when I started acting and had to do press was are you a good girl or a bad girl? I was 16 and my 16-year-old self wanted to respond with this film.” Hathaway’s statement at Sundance back in January resulted in thunderous applause by the audience. I completely understand why this role and this film appealed to her. I can’t imagine any actor reading the script and not having interest. It’s so tricky and twisted and weird and liberating. Sometimes, you truly just want to burn the world down and ask “How do you like me now?” Eileen is a film that reflects an inner rage in all of us and provokes emotions in us we shove aside, forcing us to examine ourselves in profound ways. 


The line between good and evil is a big one and not always so clear cut but those lines do get crossed and Homeland’s Marin Ireland delivers a monologue in Eileen’s final act that highlights the toxicity of places that will never change and people who will never change. Some people just aren’t capable of it. If you see independence looming in the distance, you flag down a vehicle that will take you there because once people surrender to evil in themselves, you can no longer be responsible for them. Again, Eileen is so much about breaking points but also so much about breaking away. So many period films are about people who want in somehow. Eileen is about someone who wants out. 


It doesn’t surprise me that the script explores this to the extent it does. Writer Otessa Moshfegh who wrote the novel Eileen adapted her novel and wrote the screenplay with her partner Luke Goebel. The two of them had written the exhilarating roles Jennifer Lawrence and Brian Tyree Henry dominated in Causeway. Oldroyd’s direction is like that of a brilliant conductor. He is a maestro and can always be trusted to tell complex stories about complicated people in undesirable situations. Lady Macbeth was a masterpiece in justified rage tangled with desire and sexual restlessness. Eileen is the same and Ari Wegner’s cinematography is painstakingly gorgeous. The yellow winter moonlight practically bathes Eileen's car and her as she steps out of it. The seaside mist is lonely and haunting and the highways stretch downward like an arrow sinking into a new direction. Wegner also did the cinematography for Lady Macbeth as well and she and Olyroyd make an excellent team. 


Riveting, risque, and unpredictable, Eileen is an empowering noir thriller and one of the most refreshing films I’ve seen in ages. One of 2023’s best films. It’s also a career-defying turning point for McKenzie and a phenomenally deliciously dangerous side of Hathaway audiences are lucky to bear witness to. She saw a script that dangled something in front of her that she wanted and she went for it. I can’t wait to see it again, especially with audiences who have no clue what’s in store. 



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