As wisps of smoke join together in the interior of an overheating car, Eileen’s opening title announces itself as a sonic and visual jump scare. Brusque and brightly colored, the font is carnivalesque, inviting the audience into an obviously twisted ride that relishes its own nastiness. Moments later, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) arrives, seated in the same car in a different time and place: A local Massachusetts beachfront makeout spot, where she is a lone voyeur to couples hooking up in their own vehicles. Just as things are getting hot and heavy, Eileen opens her car door to scoop up a handful of dirty snow and shove it into her pants. Gross, uncomfortable, hot. Welcome to Eileen.
Director William Oldroyd’s (Lady Macbeth) adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 1960s-set novel is a short, sharp, life-changing chapter in the seemingly dead-end day-to-day of 24-year-old Eileen. She’s a desperately lonely woman whose alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham) emotionally abuses her, and whose supervisors at the boys’ correctional facility where she works as a secretary and glorified janitor make pointed barbs about her uselessness. Behind her unassuming gaze, she indulges in anything that will make her heart beat faster: Murder-suicide daydreams about her father, masturbatory fantasies of rough public sex with the handsome young correctional officer (Owen Teague), a compulsive consumption and regurgitation of more sugar and candy than any person could reasonably stand.
When a sporty red car zooms through her periphery just as she’s taking out the prison trash, it seems that this disruption to director of photography Ari Wegner’s (an established star with Zola, The Power of the Dog and Lady Macbeth) frosty Northeastern color palette could be just another one of Eileen’s escapisms. In a way the car’s owner Carol—I mean, the prison’s new Harvard-trained, bottle-blonde counselor Rebecca (a delightfully intense and coy Anne Hathaway) is Eileen’s greatest fantasy come to life. Stylish, smart and attentive to Eileen in a way that no one else is, she picks up on the secretary’s need for recognition immediately. At the prison’s annual Christmas pageant, a contemptuous tradition of degradation in the name of Jesus Christ and reformed society, Eileen can’t take her eyes off of Rebecca, even as a guard beats one of the young men for his heckling, instigating a larger fight and lockdown.
The tension between Eileen’s desires and unbecoming outer world is what most successfully drives the film, and her too-quickly burgeoning relationship with Rebecca hits the exact pitch to overwhelm drab, depressing reality. Soon after their first meeting, Rebecca catches Eileen snooping through the file of Leonard Polk, a young inmate who brutally murdered his father. While helping Eileen pick up the scattered file, she offers her a cigarette, waxing poetic about the “nasty habit” that ruins her enamel, and gives the enthralled Eileen a close-up view of her teeth. Like the most engaging scenes of the film, it’s off-kilter, repulsive and garishly sexy. Eileen’s obsession soon rises to Hitchockian and Bergmanian levels, as she studies and inhabits Rebecca’s drink of choice and lipstick-stained cigarettes like she’s between the frames of Persona or Rebecca rather than Carol.
For most of its runtime, Eileen’s stylistic choices click into place with its narrative. Oldroyd and Wegner smartly highlight Hathaway, McKenzie and spectacular pinch-hitter Marin Ireland’s best features in close-up, lingering on the three women long enough that the audience can become just as entranced by them as they are by each other. Richard Reed Parry’s score cracks and swings like the tenuous icicles that decorate Eileen’s front door. Even the more enthusiastic bops that buoy Eileen and Rebecca when they’re out dancing stew in their minor key bridges, underpinning any happiness with cynicism and warning. Oldroyd couldn’t be accused of subtlety, but that’s not what this rip-current is aiming for. By the time Eileen realizes that Rebecca’s investment in her isn’t one of pure, uncomplicated adoration, she’s already in too deep.
Unfortunately, the twist of Moshfegh’s novel (and screenplay that she co-wrote with Luke Goebel), while effectively shocking, cracks open much of Eileen’s pent-up desire and turns it to a flat fizz as the film finds its end. Eileen’s violent imagination, so frightening and unpredictable while buried, doesn’t quite survive the truth, and the script stumbles to an atmospheric but unsatisfactory close. Nonetheless, the visceral thrills and quiet abominations of the journey are enjoyable, and worth the watch for Hathaway’s circling of McKenzie like a shark smelling preemptively spilt blood in the water; that is, until she realizes she’s a little more dangerous than her usual prey.
Director: William Oldroyd
Writer: Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh
Starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Marin Ireland, Shea Whigham, Owen Teague
Release Date: January 21, 2023 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.