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Film review: Sinister adaptation of ‘Eileen’ explores woman’s complex pseudosexual relationship

Anne Hathaway (left) and Thomasin McKenzie (right) play Rebecca and Eileen in “Eileen.” Based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, the psychological thriller released in theaters on Friday. (Courtesy of Neon)

“Eileen”

Directed by William Oldroyd

Neon, Universal Pictures

Dec. 1

By Harbaksh Kaur

Dec. 1, 2023 10:09 p.m.

This post was updated Dec. 3 at 8:33 p.m.

Ottessa Moshfegh is artfully bringing her eccentric literary work to the silver screen.

Based on Moshfegh’s cult favorite novel of the same name, the psychological thriller “Eileen” released Friday with direction from William Oldroyd and performances from Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway. Set in 1964 Massachusetts, the film follows Eileen (McKenzie) as she navigates her dull suburban life as a secretary at a boys’ prison until Rebecca Saint John (Hathaway) enters her life as the new prison psychologist, leading to an obsession with a bloody conclusion. The performances from McKenzie and Hathaway faithfully bring these characters to life, and its haunting cinematography lures in viewers for a thriller beyond their imagination.

[Related: Film review: Opulent aesthetics can’t save ‘Saltburn’ from narrative vacuity]

The film opens with a shot of Eileen’s broken car’s interior, parked by the lake that she frequents in the Massachusetts winter. The car fills with billowing white smoke, which she later reveals occurs if the windows are not rolled down. This scene hauntingly begins the film with a cryptic message hinting at something sinister.

As the film continues, it is revealed that Eileen has been stuck in this suburban lifestyle for years and has grown bored of it. Her melancholic view on life is further delved into as we see her wistfully watching couples from afar. Moshfegh’s writing shows the repressed side of humanity, highlighting aspects that people are ashamed of or things that are considered taboo. She is unafraid to make her characters as abnormal as possible to get people outside of their comfort zones.

Later at work, Eileen is seen longingly glancing at various prisoners, as well as a security guard, which does a great job at showing her longing for some connection in her life. She seems unable to get any attention from men but wistfully fantasizes about it. Her fantasies are projected into the film, brutally and abruptly ending each time she is brought back to reality, taking viewers along for a ride. Her impulsive thoughts include rapid shots of her killing herself and her father that are artfully integrated into the film, causing the audience to initially believe that these events actually happened. Each gun shot is so loud and violent compared to the rest of the film that it shocks viewers out of their quiet discomfort and into distress.

Her dreary life takes a turn when a beautiful new prison psychologist, Rebecca, comes to the boys prison. The two are drawn to each other with Rebecca interested in Eileen being the only younger woman there, and Eileen being enticed by Rebecca’s beauty and confidence, seemingly being everything the younger wishes she was. Upon her first meeting with Rebecca, Eileen leads her to the ladies restroom and sniffs her coat, showing her psychological attachment to Rebecca already. Hathaway does an incredible job presenting Rebecca as a pillar of light in Eileen’s life, portraying a carefree woman who grabs the attention of everyone in a room with ease.

Eileen seems eager to please Rebecca, and they end up going to a bar where she ditches her usual attire of muted colors and unremarkable clothes for her late mother’s nice dresses and coats. McKenzie’s depiction of the first “date” jitters is relatable to viewers, and it depicts Eileen finally finding her femininity. Eileen starts mimicking Rebecca through her outfits and makeup, along with her smoking habit, showing that Eileen is fully prepared to put on Rebecca like a new dress. The small details of how she presents herself pull her character together, helping audiences understand she had no sense of self and never will. Once the night winds down and Rebecca heads to leave, she kisses Eileen on the lips, completely erasing the line between professionalism and friends, bringing the two into new uncharted territory.

With no other female role models in her life, Eileen clings onto Rebecca for a chance to find herself and her femininity that had been lost and dampened over the years. The film does an excellent job of showcasing her obsession with Rebecca, with Eileen’s upbeatness only occurring with Rebecca or with thoughts of her.

[Related: Film review: Quietly haunting and eye-opening, ‘Priscilla’ challenges the Presleys’ legacy]

One of the most stunning shots of the film is its appalling twist, when Rebecca invites Eileen to her house for a Christmas Eve dinner. Hathaway perfectly encapsulates a woman on a razor’s edge as viewers can instantly tell that something is wrong with the house, comprised of dirty rooms, a messy kitchen and a dreary beige coloring, not befitting a woman like herself. She reveals to Eileen that this is not her house but Miss Polk’s – a woman who aided in her husband’s molestation of her son, who is tied up in the basement. Immediately the shot switches to Eileen, and it gets harder to breathe. Her face deflates, and fear and uncertainty settle into every corner of the screen.

Disastrous events unfold, concluding with Miss Polk’s death and a blood-covered Eileen deciding to frame her father for the crime in motion. Unfortunately, Eileen eventually creates another fantasy, telling Rebecca that they should run away to New York together. However, Rebecca never shows and leaves Eileen to deal with the body. McKenzie masterfully shows Eileen’s grief through her facial expressions, allowing audiences to sympathize with her as a friendless woman in deep trouble. Eileen ends up leaving the body in the woods and lets it fill with smoke, artfully mirroring the sinister opening scene with a beautiful shot that cinematically ties the film together from beginning to end. She hitches a ride on a semi-truck with her coat full of cash and her gun, leaving behind her woes and Rebecca – thus showing her own independence for the first time ever.

All in all, “Eileen” is a sinister adaptation of an eerie novel that dives into the complex pseudosexual relationship between a woman and her uncontrollable hyperfixations.

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Harbaksh Kaur
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