“I live a little differently than most people.”
It’s so hard for a film to pull off a surprise today. Most audiences tend to see every major twist and revelation coming before the characters, or at least say that they do to their friends once the movie has ended. Logic suggests that this has less to do with the level of cleverness on the part of the audience and more with the fact that they’ve simply memorized the conventions of whatever film genre they’re watching. Regardless of which one may be the actual case, it’s tough for any movie to put one over on an audience these days. Eileen doesn’t have that problem and instead, enjoys a third-act reveal that’s so out of left field, but also fits with the events that have occurred so far. It’s a twist that earns its audience’s gasps and manages to take Eileen to a darker place than before. This turn may also be the reason that the film might not work for some watching, if only because it proves that Eileen was never going to be the film anyone thought it was.
Based on the novel of the same name, the 1960s-set Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) plays the title character, a young woman stuck in the small Massachusetts town she grew up in. Eileen works a miserable job as an assistant in a boys’ reform school and lives in the same house as her alcoholic father named Jim (Shea Whigham). When the Harvard-educated psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) joins the faculty, Eileen finds herself instantly mesmerized by her. As she becomes more and more drawn to Rebecca’s beauty and worldliness, Eileen suddenly sees her life headed in a direction she never saw coming.
Eileen is being sold as a thriller, a genre that does indeed fit the story being told. The opening notes of the score and titles immediately set the stage for a tense and mysterious experience. William Oldroyd’s film is a slow burn of a thriller that works thanks to the tension that keeps bubbling under the surface in every scene. But Eileen is first and foremost a character piece, exploring its title character with a curiosity that doesn’t judge her even when we venture inside the darkest areas of her mind. The film presents Eileen as a stunted little girl yearning to explore herself as a woman. Driven by her desires, Eileen’s longing for the idea of a life outside of the one she’s always lived allows her to be understood, even at her lowest moments. The film’s moody music and soft, faded colors give this the perfect sense of place for Eileen’s world, putting us right in the hopelessness she calls her life. The faded environment Eileen lives in applies to everything and everyone except Rebecca, who quickly emerges as the only bright and vibrant element our main character recognizes through both her appearance and demeanor. Once Eileen locks eyes with Rebecca, we know her life has now changed.
Even in today’s filmmaking world, Eileen exists as a rarity in that it is a buzzed-about film that offers two great roles for women that are both different and intriguing with more than meets the eye. The repressed Eileen is a compelling enough character who becomes even more compelling in her reaction to Rebecca’s entrance into her life. It’s easy to see Rebecca as the fantasy of the kind of woman Eileen would like to be. The audience watches as Rebecca becomes the root of Eileen’s obsession, but in a sense, it’s almost as if she conjured her up. Witnessing the way Rebecca exists in Eileen’s world, it feels like the latter created her in her own mind and gave her the kinds of characteristics and freedom she wished she had. This is heavily suggested when the two meet for drinks and Rebecca switches their names at the bar before convincing Eileen that they dance together. There’s a growing intensity in their relationship that parallels the end of Eileen’s rope when it comes to her own life. This is signified most by Eileen’s appearance, which becomes less demure the more Rebecca rubs off on her. When it’s time for Rebecca’s exit, the fantasy is all but finished, and a new reality sets in.
Had Eileen been made in the 80s, I could have so easily seen the likes of Jodie Foster and Jessica Lange in the lead roles. While McKenzie and Hathaway make their characters their own, it’s hard not to see shades of Foster’s Clarice Starling or Lange’s Cora Smith being channeled in ways that only heighten the work that these two actresses do. Watching them interact in scenes together is interesting due to their unique takes and styles. McKenzie is internal, Hathaway is open and the result is just the kind of inimitable chemistry needed for the story to work. Both ladies carry the film but are also ably supported by Whigham (never better) and Marin Ireland as the mother of one of Rebecca’s patients.
Going back to the 1960s and the world of Eileen, it’s impossible to overstate just how much the film feels like it belongs in that era. Having not read the novel, I can’t say that the story was always set during that period, but watching it on film, I can’t imagine Eileen existing in any other decade. With a score that’s just as beguiling as Rebecca, and end credits which would feel right home during that time, Eileen all but feels like a 60s movie. But how would the film have played in the 60s? A few explicit shots would have been removed, for sure, but part of me can see Eileen existing in that cinematic landscape. Subtext and all, the film does serve as a testament to the kinds of films from before that pushed boundaries and scared censors in order to bring the dark truth of humanity to the screen. Eileen may feel like an obvious throwback simply because of its aesthetics, but its real homage runs a little deeper.