'Eileen' Believes in Nothing, Lebowski
William Oldroyd's sophomore film is noir at its most nihilistic.
True noir believes in nothing… not morality, not karma, not self-improvement… nothing. And Eileen is most certainly true noir. A lot of critics have been comparing director William Oldroyd’s sophomore film to Hitchcock, but that’s way off-base. Adapted from the book by Ottessa Moshfegh (who co-wrote the screenplay with Luke Goebel), Eileen is closer to the work of novelist (The Killer Inside Me, The Getaway) and screenwriter (The Killing) Jim Thompson. This is a story about bad people doing bad things to other bad people, and it offers the viewer no petty reassurances about good triumphing over evil or life being full of puppies and butterflies and rainbows. It’s not soul-crushing, exactly, but it’s definitely not life-affirming, either.
Thomasin McKenzie plays the title role, which is almost the exact same painfully-meek character she played in 2021’s Last Night in Soho, only hornier, sporting a thick Massachusetts accent instead of a delicate British one, and living in the 1960s instead of obsessing over the 1960s. She shares a home with her father, Jim (American goddamn treasure Shea Whigham), an alcoholic ex-cop who never misses an opportunity to tell Eileen how little he thinks of her, and works as a secretary at the local boy’s prison, where she lusts after one of the guards (Owen Teague). Like her father, the other secretaries - particularly one played by Lars von Trier regular Siobhan Fallon Hogan at her Siobhan Fallon Hoganiest - are not nice to her. Her mom is dead, her sister is married and never visits, her only hobby is masturbating in public or semi-public settings, and her life just generally kind of sucks.
Enter Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the prison’s new psychologist. A blonde in a sea of brunettes, Rebecca is so sultry and seductive that her name might as well be Femme Fatale. But I guess Eileen has never seen a movie before, because she nonetheless quickly becomes infatuated with Rebecca. Rebecca seems to return her affection, and this being a noir film, that naturally means it’s only a matter of time until Eileen is sucked into a web of criminal activity from which she must escape before going to jail or her grave.
“Love will make you crazy,” Jim tells Eileen early in the movie, and that is, very sincerely, the story’s guiding principle, dramatized both in the relationship between Eileen and Rebecca and in revelations about an inmate (Sam Nivola, son of Alessandro Nivola) who killed his dad. It’s thematically of a kind with Oldroyd’s excellent 2016 directorial debut, Lady Macbeth, which had a similarly chilly view of love, community, gender dynamics, and justice.
Eileen is good, but it isn’t as good as Lady Macbeth. There are a few reasons for this. One is that while McKenzie makes a convincing introvert, she does not make a convincing young woman with no suitors - Eileen is one of those movies that wants you to believe that its very attractive leading lady is very unattractive, and that gambit never really works.
Another reason Eileen doesn’t quite gel is that neither McKenzie nor Hathaway are as magnetic as that film’s star, Florence Pugh. Hathaway, like McKenzie, has already played a nearly-identical version of her character, in both The Dark Knight Rises and the hilariously awful Serenity; she’s good, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that she’s not challenging herself. Whigham (Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One) is terrific, as is always the case, and it would be wonderful to see him snag some award nominations for his performance here, especially because it’s a larger role than the bit parts to which he’s often relegated.
But it’s Marin Ireland (The Dark and the Wicked), as the patricidal inmate’s mother, who steals the whole movie with a single devastating monologue near the conclusion. The entire moment is played in a tight close-up with no cuts, and it humanizes a character that has done something deeply inhuman without robbing their appalling crime of its repulsiveness, which is quite the high-wire act. Anyone not already familiar with Ireland sure as hell will be after seeing this movie.
Regardless, Eileen also falls short of Lady Macbeth because the story ends so abruptly as to feel unfinished and, thus, unsatisfying. Which is a shame, because it seems like it’s just getting to the most deliciously nasty stuff when the closing credits roll - this movie ends where most noirs begin (in fairness, the novel goes a little bit further past the movie’s final scene - but not very much). Maybe the precipitous conclusion is also part of Oldroyd’s message - nothing, including this film, is ever what you want it to be, and you’re an idiot for hoping otherwise.