June Butler delves into William Oldroyd’s psychological thriller Eileen.

Set in 1960s rural Massachusetts, Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie; Jojo Rabbit (2019), Old (2021)), works in a corrections facility for teenage boys. Based on the 2015 novel of the same name by Ottessa Moshfegh, the film is a model of small-town snobbery and pettiness. Eileen’s mother is dead, and Eileen lives with her hard-drinking father Jim (Shea Whigham) who suffers from alcohol-based paranoia and continuously undermines her. From the onset, it is apparent that Eileen was only offered a job at the detention centre due to her father’s previous influence as Chief of Police but goodwill towards the duo from the townsfolk, has long dissipated. Jim’s behaviour has evolved into increasing levels of erraticism, and he has been seen pointing his gun at passing neighbours, much to the concern of a local policeman who approaches Eileen and asks her to take Jim’s weapon into her possession. At work, Eileen fantasizes about one of the prison guards who pays her little heed and is not interested in Eileen romantically. She is subjected to snide comments from co-workers who callously deride her meekness and their lack of respect pushes Eileen to further isolate. A degree of anhedonia forces Eileen into a state of emotionless acting-out, where the lines between fact and fiction become entwined – as the narrative progresses, it is difficult to discern between the two. 

Cue the arrival of Doctor Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway) at the detention centre. A glamourous psychologist who has just entered the employ of the prison, drives up to the jail in a racy red sports car. Eileen witnesses Rebecca’s arrival with an intake of breath – she is instantly drawn towards this beautiful woman. Within days, Rebecca begins to tear up the rule book in how prisoners are treated – she speaks to the young men with compassion and kindness. One teenage inmate, Lee Polk (Sam Nivola) is incarcerated for stabbing his father to death. Rebecca has a private conversation with Lee and subsequently summons his mother to meet her son at the prison. Rita Polk (Marin Ireland), a put-upon, sheepish-looking middle-aged woman, arrives but Lee refuses to address his mother or even utter a word in her presence. Mrs Polk exits the interview room in tears, loudly berating Lee for his callous behaviour. Eileen witnesses the fracas as Rita screams abuse at her son. 

Later, Rebecca and Eileen head to a local bar where Rebecca confides in the young woman telling her she sees great things in store for Eileen’s future. Rebecca and Eileen drink, smoke, and exchange intimate stories about their lives. A drunken Rebecca gently kisses Eileen on the lips, drives home and leaves Eileen in the bar where Eileen picks up Rebecca’s lipstick-stained cigarette butts and attempts to smoke them.  

Thomasin McKenzie as Eileen steals the show in this gorgeous film about the agony of growing up lonely and isolated in a parochial small American town. Her stuttering words, aching shyness, and unstable, chaotic lifestyle, lends sway to simply going through the motions, a being that longs for passion and love, a moment of manifestation and bearing witness to her own existence. Until Rebecca Saint John arrives, Eileen’s life was measured in beads of drudgery and mind-numbing boredom. She imagines shooting her father in the head. Then killing herself. Anything to change that single maddening trough of ennui in having to face the same day over and over. It’s Groundhog Day but without any of the wry self-awareness GD possesses and for anyone who has trudged through that unbearable loneliness, this film will make your heart melt. As day to Eileen’s night, Anne Hathaway is perfectly cast in the role of Rebecca. She provides the luminous foil to Eileen’s unceasing bête noire – that darkly sardonic black dog who anticipates failure and waits in the shadows. There is a zinger of a plot twist – one which I did not anticipate, and it is shocking when it lands. 

Faced with the bleakest of futures, Eileen retreats into a twilight world of hazy memories, a stasis of imaginary accolades where she is feted for successes and achievements – the viewer must deduce whether each tragic/shocking/happy recollection has truly occurred or has Eileen’s lurid imagination manifested the event into the real and present. A rich, slow burner of a film with some terrific directing by William Oldroyd. 

Eileen is in cinemas from 1st December 2023.




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