Film, Film Review, IFFBoston

IFFBOSTON FALL FOCUS REVIEW: Eileen (2023) dir. William Oldroyd

"Everyone's angry here. It's Massachusetts."


It’s a shame the term “weird fiction” has already been assigned to a specific idiom of early twentieth century horror, because the phrase would otherwise suit the work of Otessa Moshfegh to a T. Since her debut novella in 2014, Moshfegh has gained a fervent cult following for her strange, dark tales of troubled female protagonists and all-around aberrant behavior. It was perhaps inevitable that Moshfegh’s fiction would reach the big screen, but adapting her work would be seemingly easier said than done: make too many concessions and you risk watering down the singular malevolence that makes Moshfegh’s books so hypnotic, yet hew too closely to the source material and you’re liable to end up with something unwatchably grim. Thankfully, William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Eileen, Moshfegh’s debut novel, threads the needle effortlessly, and while it certainly won’t be for all tastes, those on its wavelength will find it a poisonous delight.

Thomasin McKenzie plays Eileen, a young woman living a particularly bleak existence in the wintry climes of 1960s Massachusetts. She lives alone with her father (the great Shea Whigham), a former police chief who now spends his time waving his gun at innocent passers-by and drinking himself into oblivion. Eileen works a predictably numbing job at the local juvenile corrections facility; she seemingly has no friends, and spends her free time sucking on Werther’s Originals, spying on couples in parked cars, and staring into the middle distance. Eileen’s drab life receives a bolt of color, however, with the introduction of the facility’s new psychiatrist, Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway). Rebecca stands in stark contrast to her resolutely drab surroundings, a wildly charismatic platinum blonde with a transatlantic accent and impeccable taste in clothes. Eileen finds herself drawn to this fascinating stranger, and– entirely understandably– instantly begins fantasizing a life in which the two of them run away together.

From the above description, one might be tricked into thinking that Eileen is an elegant lesbian period-romance in the Carol vein, and the swoony score by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry could almost lull you into a false sense of security as to what kind of movie you’re watching. But, as with Moshfegh’s novel, there is an undeniable sense of dread and unease which signals that things aren’t quite right. Rebecca’s smile is just a little too plastic, and Eileen’s stare a little too dead; what Rebecca sparks in her isn’t the blossom of self-actualization, but something more sickly and fevered. The dingy snow and peeling wallpaper that make up Eileen’s world look as indelible as the barbed wire fences of the detention hall. Even the oldies-radio needledrops feel a few nocks left of the dial– woozy numbers like “Tell Him” and “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am” which convey a certain strain of crackly AM delirium. It’s clear from the opening frames that nothing good will come to any of these characters.

To be clear: all of this is what I love about Eileen. Oldroyd captures the delicious perversity of Moshfegh’s novel, leavening the all-encompassing despair with a streak of humor which is at once outrageous and drop-deadpan. McKenzie plays Eileen as an alien in human clothes, equally adrift as she attempts to communicate with the glamorous Rebecca and the nightmare townies who populate her world; amusingly, the more extreme her situation becomes (and it gets plenty extreme), the more at home she appears to be. Meanwhile, the holiday setting serves as a hilariously ironic counterpoint to the bleakness on display; I would not be surprised if Eileen joins the ranks of Christmas Evil and Batman Returns in rotation at alternative Christmas parties for years to come.

The most immediately accessible aspect of Eileen, of course, is Anne Hathaway’s performance. A long way from the teenage ingénue of The Princess Diaries, Hathaway here takes the harder edge she displayed in last year’s Armageddon Time and amplifies it into something strange and wonderful. Hathaway is clearly having a ball playing the film’s Hitchcock Blonde, devouring her lines with gusto and cooing like a Marilyn Monroe from hell. Half the fun of the film’s first half is trying to deduce what her performance is building towards, and when the other shoe does drop (no spoilers, obviously) it does not disappoint. Eileen is probably too weird and upsetting to win over the fogeys at the Oscars, but if it did, Hathaway would be the pony to bet on.

Hathaway and McKenzie are ably supported by a game ensemble, particularly Whigham, who spends much of the film in various stages of falling down, and Marin Ireland, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite “Oh good, it’s her!” actors, as the mother of one of the center’s inmates (between this and birth/rebirth, Ireland is shaping up to be one of the year’s MVPs). But my favorite supporting character in Eileen is Massachusetts itself. Though shot mostly in New Jersey, Eileen deftly captures a very specific brand of small town malaise which will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s spent any time on the North Shore: the cigarette-stained wood paneling, the chummy, toothless barflies, the beyond-parody pahk-the-cah accents. Moshfegh, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Luke Goebel, was raised in Newton, and clearly relishes every opportunity to needle her home state. At one point, Rebecca says of Ireland’s character, “She seemed angry.” Eileen shrugs: “Everybody’s kinda angry here. It’s Massachusetts.” Needless to say, the sold-out crowd at the Brattle burst into applause.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably got a good idea of whether or not Eileen is for you. This is strong stuff, a comedy so pitch-black and unsparing that a good percentage of its audience likely won’t register it as comedy at all (and, to be sure, there are moments which are deadly, bone-chillingly serious). But those who love it are going to love it, with the passion and intensity reserved for those films which are so strange and wonderful that their very existence feels like an anomaly. Some people who watch Eileen– perhaps most– will never want to watch it again, while others will want to revisit it immediately and show it to their unwitting friends. It should go without saying that I’m in the latter camp.

dir. William Oldroyd
97 min.

Part of IFFBoston’s Fall Focus series
Opens in select theaters 12/1 and expands 12/8

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