A curiously flat film noir starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway as coworkers at a prison who form a dangerous association.
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The worst thing a film can do is be predictable. Even more so genres like the film noir, which tend to very dependent on plot developments and twists. “Eileen” is one such, an intriguing premise rendered curiously flat by the audience always having to wait around for the movie to show up.
Thomasin McKenzie (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Old”) plays the titular character, a young woman working as a flunky in a New England boys’ prison in the 1950s. Its location is never exactly stated, though it’s got to be somewhere near Boston given all the aahhs in the vowels.
She lives with her dad (Shea Whigham), the former chief of the local police department, who was forced out for vague reasons (“I was too good at my job”) and now makes his occupation at sitting around the house and getting drunk every single day. Eileen stops by the local pub for his regular two pint bottles. He occasionally causes trouble with the neighbors, even waving his gun around in his bathrobe, but the cops still treat him with the deference of their former boss.
She is both his enabler and victim, the target of his constant taunts about being worthless and the sort of person who will never do anything interesting. He’s pretty helpless on his own but is clear he would respect her more if she went off and lived her own life.
Eileen’s work isn’t much better, her job consisting of fetching and toting for the office secretaries, who degrade and belittle her. (Siobhan Fallon Hogan plays her chief tormentor.) She’s also responsible for patting down the female visitors to the prison, mostly mothers come to see their troubled sons.
Eileen is sexually frustrated, having constant fantasies about some of the prison guards and even looking askance at the prisoners, who are not much younger than her. Her hand has a way of sliding down into her skirt to help fluff these daydreams.
Then Rebecca walks in, and Eileen’s whole life is upended.
The new progressive psychiatrist at the prison, Rebecca is played by Anne Hathaway done up in full femme fatale mode, complete with icy blonde hair, smart suits, heels and crimson lipstick. She’s smart and independent, and is the sort of woman who likes to be the center of attention wherever she goes — and, for some reason, has decided to focus her own attention on Eileen.
Rebecca talks to Eileen like an equal, and even invites her to drop by her office when she’s not in a session with a patient. Their association grows deeper, Eileen the starstruck naif and Rebecca the one grabbing her hand and leading the way. Though all her previous fantasies have been focused on men, her attraction to the older woman is like a light bulb snapping on for the first time, and its glow is too bright to ignore.
From there, things go into the usual sort of crime-and-punishment type of stuff we see in the genre, mostly centered around a new prisoner (Sam Nivola) who murdered his father, and his mother, Rita (Marin Ireland), who comes to the prison and causes a big commotion. I’ll leave you to discover where that goes, but it doesn’t take a lot of guessing to figure out.
Directed by William Oldroyd from a screenplay by Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, based on Moshfegh’s novel, “Eileen” is the rare movie that needed to be longer. At 97 minutes it feels more like a sketch of a film than the full thing. We needed to explore more of Rebecca’s background to understand why she immediately sets her sights on a girl who, despite the meanness of father saying it out loud, just isn’t all that interesting.
I’d be curious to see this same story told from Rebecca’s perspective, coming in gangbusters into a situation where she’s not especially welcomed and seeing Eileen as her natural ally.
“Eileen” is being billed as an erotic thriller, but it fails to be either of those descriptors.