You don’t get many thrillers made in the tradition of mid-century film noir anymore. That was the promise of Eileen, a recent adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 debut novel about a twisted young prison secretary who strikes up a friendship with a mysterious colleague.
In the last few years, Moshfegh has been crowned online as the author of choice for women of a certain stripe. She often writes about female loners, giving special attention to the parts of her characters that many would consider unbefitting of a leading lady — their strange habits, perverse thoughts and extreme self-loathing.
These characteristics are explored, but not as visceral as you might hope they’d be in director William Oldroyd’s adaptation — perhaps because Moshfegh, a co-screenwriter, was dismayed after the novel’s release that critics found the character repulsive.
Played with a killer Massachusetts accent by Thomasin McKenzie, Eileen is a junior secretary at the juvenile prison in her sleepy 1960s New England town.
Shot to emphasize the town’s winter greens and blues, the movie looks how it feels: chilly, eerily still.
While the people in her orbit know that Eileen isn’t quite right, the character’s strange inner world is a secret between her and the audience. She chews up soft candies only to spit them back into their wrappers, not wanting to consume the calories; she imagines herself being publicly ravished by a prison guard; and she fantasizes about using her ex-cop father’s gun on him and herself.
Eileen’s only domestic duty in the neglected home she shares with Dad is to seamlessly replace his empty liquor bottles. Her father reminds her frequently of the more important women who once lived in their house — Eileen’s dead mother and her estranged sister, Joanie, who has since escaped their sad life. What would it take for Eileen to do the same?
The days pass by in a blur until a beautiful stranger arrives, exciting Eileen and changing the course of her life. Rebecca, the sophisticated prison therapist fresh from Harvard (“Hah-vahd”), becomes the object of Eileen’s inertia-driven fixation. In this woman, invisible Eileen sees someone worth aspiring to. She doesn’t expect Rebecca to return her interest, but a bizarre friendship bordering on desire blooms in their distinctly unfriendly workplace.
WATCH | The trailer for Eileen, an adaptation of the 2015 novel:
What then unfolds is a story about women who are surrounded by, subjected to and complicit in a world of male violence — but more significantly, how they perceive themselves in this world. It’s the thread between Eileen, Rebecca and the forlorn mothers of the prison’s young male inmates, one that (I’ll give it this!) the movie communicates more clearly than the book.
During a pivotal bar scene at the film’s halfway point, Eileen and Rebecca have a little fun with the men ogling them across the bar, switching identities when they introduce themselves. Eileen is thrilled to be Rebecca, the Harvard-educated therapist. And we get a glimpse at what Rebecca might see in Eileen: “I bet you have brilliant dreams,” she tells her while they stand outside in the cold.
Hathaway lacking mystique
It’s a shame, then, that Rebecca (named for Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 gothic novel, later the Alfred Hitchcock film Rebecca) is played by a miscast Anne Hathaway.
Don’t mistake this critique as an addition to the misogynist pile-on that Hathaway endured during the mid-2010s, following her Oscar-winning performance in Les Misérables. Eileen has an appealing melodramatic quality that Hathaway has previously excelled at.
Sometimes, a movie star’s public persona lends itself to the performance. You’d hope that would be the case here, when the story depends on an assertive secondary character. Rebecca is meant to be a glamorous woman who intoxicates Eileen and whose affected poise hides an ugly ambiguity. Hathaway is instead a distracting presence lacking mystique, never totally disappearing into the role as you might hope she would.
Eileen, happy to be playing second fiddle, is awe-inspired by Rebecca. She stares reverently when her new friend forgoes prison protocol while meeting with a boy’s mother; later, she grins in delight when Rebecca strikes a persistent and drunk bar-goer, sending him to the floor, before turning back to Eileen with her hand stretched out for a dance.
As we’re to understand it, Eileen believes Rebecca to be the main character of this story. It’s a quality that her verbally abusive father (Shea Whigham) lets her know he detests as they share a bottle. Some people are the real people, he tells her: “Like in a movie, they’re the ones you’re watching, they’re the ones making moves.” Meanwhile, other people are just there to fill the space. “That’s you, Eileen. You’re one of them,” he says.
When Eileen‘s heinous climax slowly unfurls, the film finally captures the novel’s creepy spirit, mostly thanks to a third performance that — fittingly or ironically — outshines those of the two leads. We finally understand why Eileen is our main character — why she’s not just a second fiddle, as her father hated her for being. Thanks to Rebecca, Eileen discovers that she has a capacity for the violence that she’s immersed in.
Eileen is in theatres on Friday.