Eileen (2023)

‘Eileen’ not as gritty as it wants to be

If you’re going to borrow heavily from “Carol” and “Bound,” two of queer cinema’s landmark offerings, and then co-opt a repressed 1960s Boston as your backdrop, you’d damn well better be good. That’s the monumental task director William Oldroyd undertakes in his sophomore effort, “Eileen.” He succeeds for much of the film before allowing it to crash and burn during a ridiculous third act in which credulity is casually tossed aside in favor of over-amped pulp.

Based on a noirish novel by Hub native Ottessa Moshfegh, the movie begins as a portrait of a young penitentiary worker trapped in a wallless prison largely of her own making. A never-better Thomasin McKenzie (“Jojo Rabbit”) injects an intriguing mix of wry humor and pathos into Eileen Dunlap, a mousy 24-year-old prone to indulging in sexual fantasies to counteract a life utterly devoid of excitement.

Then, in strides tall, well-coiffed blonde bombshell Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), the juvie center’s new resident psychologist. Eileen cannot take her eyes off this worldly woman she considers the ultimate image of class and sophistication. Without uttering a word, McKenzie communicates all that Eileen is feeling and thinking as she stares longingly at a goddess with the power to illuminate every dark, dank corner And to her shock, Rebecca meets Eileen’s gaze with a come-hither look. It’s an electric moment hinting at a sizzling premise, one on which the film ruefully fails to fully capitalize.

Yet, you marvel at the intense level of sexual chemistry the two actresses create as jellyfish encounters barracuda. The women share drinks and dance seductively together inside a local watering hole where the erotic display transfixes a horde of toothless, spineless middle-aged men. In many ways, the forbidden spectacle is as emancipating for the old dudes as it is for the two women. But we know, this being mid-sixties New England, that the attraction is likely to go nowhere.

That doesn’t stop Eileen from envisioning a future with the town’s sole femme fatale. She daydreams of Rebecca rescuing her from her stifling existence, entrenched in a dead-end job and caring for a drunken father (Shea Whigam), the ex-sheriff now cuffed to the bottle. The looming question is: Does Rebecca share the same happily ever after illusion? Or, is she merely searching for a spiritual ally in a seaside burg where smart women are at a premium?

The only sure thing is their common belief in the innocence of the facility’s most infamous prisoner, Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), a tousle-haired teen convicted of brutally stabbing his police officer father to death while his mother slept mere inches away.

In adapting her best-seller with the assistance of her husband, Luke Goebel, Moshfegh is forced to pare down what I’m sure were the novel’s numerous nuances into a 96-minute time frame. This is particularly problematic when a third-act plot twist has you slapping your head and wondering WTF, as a complete reversal in tone and trajectory takes you out of the movie. Suddenly, a darkly comic neo-noir devolves into a disturbing tale of incest and sodomy.

I haven’t read Moshfegh’s book, but I’m pretty sure this jarring transition was depicted with far more finesse than she and her husband convey on film. It’s a betrayal not just to us, but to the characters. Further still, it does a disservice to two superb actresses who’ve fearlessly laid it all out there. Moreover, why was it decided to film this Boston-centric story in New Jersey and New York?

Despite its shortcomings, I can’t say I was ever bored. And Oldroyd (“Lady Macbeth”) is a marvel at evoking a mood and sense of place, although I could have done without the variety of bogus Boston accents, McKenzie’s included. It’s the only flaw in an otherwise stellar turn by the gifted New Zealander, who builds significantly on the promise she exhibited in last year’s under-the-radar gem, “Last Night in Soho.”

Her combination of wide-eyed innocence and crafty intelligence has served her well. But other than her dazzling debut in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” McKenzie has yet to find another director capable of showcasing the full scope of her talent. In a way, she’s like Eileen, confined, underestimated and seeking some well-earned recognition. Here’s hoping they both find it in less dodgy endeavors.

Movie review


Rated: R for violent content, sexual content and language

Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigam, Sam Nivola and Owen Teague

Director: William Oldroyd

Writer: Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh

Runtime: 96 minutes

Grade: B-

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