Eileen Is a Beautifully Perverse Noir With a Delectable Twist
Off-putting as it is hot, Eileen is a pulpy experience that makes viewers question their own fervent interest in its nastiness.
Sundance 2023: Eileen Review
A giddy, penetrating perversity looms heavy over William Oldroyd’s second feature, Eileen. It’s immensely evident from the first richly textured, fog-laden frames where the audience is introduced to the titular heroine grabbing a clump of snow and shoving it down her crotch as she beings to masturbate. Shrill yet ornate, the brightly decorated title card commences an experience that relishes and feeds off its own unpleasantness. Such scintillating, lewd pleasures permeate this pulpy treat, drawing audiences ever so closer into its beautiful morbidity, bewitching all with its off-kilter, savagely seductive foray into the noir canon. Off-putting as it is hot, Eileen is the rare experience that makes viewers question their own fervent interest in its nastiness.
Oldroyd’s adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name is a lean, meaty, and biting portrait of a transformative episode in the life of a dead-end young woman. In the asphyxiating winter of 1960s Boston, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, embodying a quiet volcano) festers with immutable misery, trapped in the suffocating grip of monotony. During the day, her secretarial position at the local boy’s prison brings with it pointed jibes from her colleagues about her uselessness, while the night brings emotional torture from her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham) in their all-but haunted home.
Her only recourse from this stifling existence is found in morbid reverie: murder-suicide fantasies involving her father and onanistic daydreams of rough public sex at her prison office with one of the more handsome guards (Owen Teague). Though above all, she seeks solace in companionship.
Enter a new prison counselor, the intoxicating Rebecca played ravishingly in a career-defining turn by Anne Hathaway, evoking the greatest of golden age femme fatales. The two strike an immediate connection when she catches Eileen snooping over photos and records of a grizzly murder involving one of the inmates. What ensues is a relationship a few notches above friendship, piercing Eileen’s shroud of darkness and setting her on a morbid, sexually laced path of self-discovery and newfound independence.
Oldroyd skillfully employs Hathaway and McKenzie’s heady, enchanting dynamic— akin to an insect awestruck by a Venus flytrap— to find sweltering heat in the dead of winter, imbuing seductive panache into the film’s skulking ride towards luscious, kooky highs and harrowing, bone-chilling lows. As Eileen’s Hitchcockian obsession reaches serendipitous heights—eerily inhabiting Rebecca’s otherworldly confidence and hypnotic suppression of the male gaze— Eileen cements itself as a truly wonderous, oddball noir. Powerfully Immersing itself in the tension between Eileen’s lurid desires and indecorous outer world, it vigorously luxuriates in the entrancing tight spaces that barely separate the two.
Mckenzie—perfecting the New England drawl— seamlessly shifts between forced normalcy and combustive volatility, vividly personifying a woman teetering on the edge of sanity, slowly nudged off the edge by unadulterated isolation and bitter contempt. Yet, it’s Hathaway who commands every frame, enthralling the audience even more than Eileen herself, as both are rightfully caught in her sensual vortex of raw extravagance.
Though, what truly drives Eileen towards perverse bliss is Ari Wegnar’s (The Power of the Dog, Zola, and Oldroyd’s first feature Lady Macbeth) sumptuous, grainy cinematography. With a fuzzed-out, milky colour palette, Wegnar’s compositions radiate with an impassioned ardor, capturing the New England landscape with frosty intrigue and surreal oddity. It manifests as another iteration of Eileen’s waking dreams, lavishly resting on each ethereal flurry, crackling icicle, and quivered breath with immense texture. The spectral imagery is echoed by Richard Reed Perry’s alluring, jazzy orchestral score, snapping with cacophonous yet pleasant detours that further cement the dreary, potent allure of this Christmas noir.
The shuddering third-act twist shuttles Eileen down a more visceral, introspective tunnel, cocooning itself in a delectable, bloody form of pulp. Touching on the harrowing truths of the mid-century female experience, it boasts a humdinger of a monologue by the stellar Marin Ireland, turning the film on its head with a shocking confession, unearthing the emotional solitude, muted rage, and bitter compromise the “fairer” sex is often saddled with.
Yet, it’s also a finale that places more emphasis on atmospheric thrills, with its pure shock-and-awe burning out quickly and siphoning out the pent-up desire that beautifully underpins the film—ultimately settling on an underwhelming note. Still, there’s no denying the quiet horrors and guttural thrills of Eileen, and it’s worth watching alone for the titillating twosome at the centre of it whose dynamic is not what it seems—altering at the violent flick of the switch.
The 2023 Sundance Film Festival takes place from January 19th to 29th. Find all our coverage here.
– Prabhjot Bains