Eileen is a Perverse Delight About Obsession and Cruelty

“Love will make you crazy, Eileen. You’ll probably never understand that.” Jim Dunlop

Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) lives in small town 1960s Massachusetts. She’s twenty-four-years-old. She has never known love and all the versions she has seen of it have been weighted in either abuse or abandonment. Her father, Jim Dunlop (Shea Whigham) is an alcoholic ex-cop who used his fists more than once on his deceased wife. Eileen’s sister, Joanie, has left her to care for Jim alone. Any sense of a future she had before her mother’s illness shunted her back to “x-town” has long evaporated. She is stuck in a cycle of repression, loathing (self and otherwise), and sustained verbal and psychological belittling by those who notice her, or at best pity from others. Eileen is unseen and unseeable until the day Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway) walks into the juvenile prison where she works as a clerk.

William Oldroyd filming an adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s award winning novel (the script is by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel) drops us into Eileen’s squalid world by giving us an out of order scene then plunging us into Eileen masturbating in her dangerously toxic car while watching two lovers in an adjacent car. She scoops up filthy ice and places it in her lap. Everything around her is grubby and greasy, including herself. Her house is a pit of putrefaction. Her father barks orders at her to get him another bottle of whatever he’s drinking and cleans his gun. She lies on a stained mattress and eats food that is probably rotten. She wears shapeless clothes. She only exists in her fevered and often violently erotic, or just violent, imagination. She observes, she fantasises, but she does not live.

As much as Eileen’s home and town is a prison, her workplace is literally one. Moorehead houses young men accused of crimes. Some relatively small, some substantial. Eileen is disliked by her female co-workers (the dislike is returned) and aware of the sleazy practices of her male bosses, including the doctors and the warden. They are misogynists. When Rebecca Saint John enters as the new psychologist the main interest the men show is in her physical beauty. They pay lip service to qualifications, but even then, they assume she went to Radcliffe not Harvard. The presumption is that Rebecca could only achieve her success in a “woman’s school.”

It is obvious why Eileen would be fascinated by Rebecca and her radical break from gender roles. Rebecca is a fast talking, sexually liberated, highly intelligent woman who lived a bohemian life in New York. Or at least that is what it appears. What seems puzzling is why Rebecca would hone her attention on the mousy Eileen. Why she would choose her as a confidant and a friend. One could even question why she is in “x-town” in the first place considering how much she loathes New England and its backwards stuffy ways.

Oldroyd and Moshfegh keep the viewer on their feet as they circle through a variety of classic Hollywood genres. There are numerous nods to Hitchcock, black comedy, noir, and melodrama (the Sirkian aspect of it being shot around Christmas is not unnoticed). Through Air Wegner’s cinematography and Richard Reed Parry’s score the audience gets the genre cues.

Eileen is a film about pathology. Not just the pathology of the young boy Lee Polk (Sam Nivola) who stabbed his father with a kitchen knife. Nor the pathology of a drunk, abusive father who lost his position as the town sheriff. Nor the pathology of Mrs. Polk (Marin Ireland) for whom Rebecca is gunning. It is about the twisted minds of Rebecca and Eileen. Rebecca might seem to be a liberated woman but there is something dark about her. She is a femme fatale who manipulates Eileen. She plays with switching identities with her. Flirts with her. Kisses her. What appears to be a queer folie à deux between Rebecca and Eileen is more messed up than Rebecca could imagine. “You don’t really think you’re a normal person do you, Eileen?” Rebecca asks her. Rebecca has no idea how abnormal Eileen is and how Rebecca has picked the wrong person to act as her collaborator.

William Oldroyd is interested in women who refuse to bow to patriarchal restraints. His incredible debut (also shot by Wegner) Lady Macbeth was about a woman learning to be utterly merciless. It is the film which brought Florence Pugh to the attention of the world. He is also interested in inherent sociopathy. Katherine could be viewed as a woman who is put in a stress position to become a monster – but also the monstrousness may have existed before her loveless marriage. For Eileen, she is already a bundle of loathing with hatred running through her before given the attention that she desperately craved from Rebecca. She imagines killing her father, killing herself, and when she realises that Rebecca had an agenda in befriending her, she is unleashed.

Thomasin McKenzie has quietly been building up an impressive resume. From her breakthrough performance in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace to supporting roles in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang, through to her shared lead with Anya Taylor-Joy in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. Eileen is her first lead role, and she is captivating as the young woman for whom ugliness and grime is both her punishment and her pleasure.

Anne Hathaway might have already won an Oscar, but she is existing on a new level in Eileen. Channelling everyone from Monica Vitti, through to Kim Novak, through to Tippi Hedren, Grace Kelly Barbara Stanwyck, and back to Katharine Hepburn, she is the enigma of a liberated woman in a time where such liberation was seen as fundamentally dangerous especially outside cosmopolitan areas. She is bucking convention to avoid being saddled with a short, fat, balding, middle-aged and mediocre man. Oldroyd leaves it up to the audience to interpret what her fundamental interest in the teenaged Lee Polk actually means.

Shea Whigham as Jim Dunlop delivers some of the most withering and cruel lines in the film. He tells Eileen, “Some people are like in the movies. They make moves. People watch them. Other people are just there. They take up space. That’s you, Eileen. You’re one of them. Spend a penny, take a penny.” He berates her for not getting a life but ensures she cannot have one. Marin Ireland essentially has only two scenes as Anne Polk, but they are vital. The atrociousness and abuse both parental figures have inflicted on their children is repulsive.

At first it can be a little difficult to realise that Eileen is about a repellent form of liberation, but liberation is the goal. The film is funny, teasing, miserable, and filled with dimensional grime. Oldryod’s goal is to continually capture the viewer off-guard. Ultimately the viewer will feel like they have immersed themselves in Eileen’s slime-ridden bathwater and been reborn into a dubious but triumphant light. Eileen is a perverse delight about obsession and cruelty; William Oldroyd’s second feature is the follow up Lady Macbeth deserved.

Director: William Oldroyd

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigam

Writers: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh, (based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Curb on Patreon
Become a patron at Patreon!