At first glance, it’s easy to premise you have everything figured out with William Oldroyd’s Eileen – a 1960s Boston noir illustrating the life of a young, emotionally downtrodden woman desperately seeking some form of stimulation in her life. When your mind falls into a cadence of expecting another coming-of-age drama of the past, that’s where the plot attempts to take the road less traveled.
Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) needs a jolt of excitement in her life in the worst way. She works as a secretary in a prison where her co-workers constantly ostracize her with snide comments. Eileen’s home life isn’t that much better. Her father, a retired ex-cop completely taken by alcoholism (Shea Whigham), often starts commotions with the neighbors. When he’s not brandishing a gun out in the street, scaring the hell out of everyone, Jim constantly tells his daughter that she’s unlovable and falls short in every way imaginable to her old sister. The only means of solace Eileen has access to are daydreams of sexual fantasies or sudden spats of violence.
What (or who) could rescue Eileen from a certain life spiraling into suburban discontent? One day, Dr. Rebecca Saint John (Anne Hathaway), a new psychiatrist, starts her tenure at the prison. She has this particular air of confidence around her – her blonde hair, beauty, and self-assured demeanor serve as a light in an otherwise damp demur landscape of rooms drenched in gray. Eileen notices this and becomes entranced by her – reminiscent of old cartoons when a character gets taken by the scent of perfume. After all, Rebecca acknowledges her existence, tells her she “reminds her of a dutch painting,” and genuinely wants to get to know her as a person.
In a way, the adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel falls within the lines of Carol (a film that came out in the same year). Between the performances of McKenzie and Hathaway, there is a natural, but subtle pull for romance in two different ways. Eileen is not only fixated that there’s an example of a woman who lives on her own terms – there is also a possibility she can join that journey with her in a lesbian love story. It’s said at the beginning of the film that Eileen constantly craves candy – now she’s found a human base to satisfy her sweet tooth. Rebecca’s charismatic gravity pulls everything into her orbit – whether it be Eileen’s feelings she didn’t know existed prior or the unwanted attention from men. Ari Wegner’s cinematographer serves to block out the noise and filter this period piece through our two main characters' eyes.
The story from co-writers Moshfegh and Luke Goebel also strives to speak to the patriarchal heaviness along with a space of family drama. A subplot reveals that a young male in town murders his father, a police officer. Both Eileen and Rebecca try to reckon with that information in different ways – for one, Jim eludes to this often (perhaps in fear Eileen will take this route). Rebecca also wonders why the teen did this. The film then takes a sharp left turn into thriller territory.
To some, the switch and its abrupt conclusion will feel interesting and possibly dropped all too quickly. A monologue from Marin Ireland steals the show and speaks to the nature where women have to carry so much weight to prop up the insecurities and secrets the men in their lives place upon them. Ireland’s character serves to at least tie those parts together, even if the main text of the film falls a bit to the wayside.
When you’re longing for a different life, anything that personifies the possibilities of that happening is appealing. Rebecca describes herself as a west coast traveler freed from the shackles of being rooted in one particular place. That freedom can be intoxicating, particularly in the film's period. But Eileen’s primary concern is getting to the destination rather than looking for an exact place on the map to go.