By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
What makes a movie Hitchcockian? Fundamentally, the film has to dabble in suspense and is perhaps most accurately described as a psychological thriller. Consistent with Hitchcock’s work, there is often a beautiful blonde woman at the heart of the story. Domineering parental figures are a regular fixture. And, of course, there’s a climactic plot twist. If this is the barebones criteria of what constitutes a Hitchockian film, then Eileen checks every box. But does that make it a worthwhile film? Not necessarily.
Eileen comes from director William Oldroyd, who previously directed the Florence Pugh-led drama Lady Macbeth in 2016. Oldroyd works from a screenplay by Luke Goebel and Otessa Moshfegh, the latter of whom wrote the novel that the film is based on. Eileen takes place in 1960s Massachusetts and follows Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit, Old, Last Night in Soho) as the titular character. Eileen is frustrated, sexually unfulfilled, and living with her erratic and alcoholic father (played by Shea Whigham). Eileen works at a prison for juveniles, which proves to be a mundane job until the arrival of glamorous child psychologist Rebecca (played by Anne Hathaway) and the start of an unusual friendship.
Eileen is a movie that thrives on anticipation. It’s clear fairly early on that the titular character’s mundane and frustrating life are sustainable and that something notable will eventually happen to radically change the course of events. This fosters a sort of anticipatory anxiety or dread – it’s obvious the film will take a sinister turn, but what that sinister turn will entail remains a mystery.
Taking the audience on this inquisitive journey is Thomasin McKenzie, who has made a name for herself in recent years as a reliable and understated actress. McKenzie as the titular character features in virtually every moment of the film and deftly portrays a subdued character desperate for something grander in life. McKenzie trades her native New Zealand accent in favor of a Massachusetts one that helps ground the character and conceptualize her as normal and down-to-earth. The dryness of Eileen’s life, made all the more dull by the dreariness of her home life and the surrounding town, is suddenly upended when Anne Hathaway crashes on the scene.
Hathaway plays the Hitchockian platinum blonde here, delivering a grandiose performance that so starkly contrasts that one of McKenzie’s. Whereas McKenzie’s Eileen is vulnerable and reserved, Hathaway’s Rebecca is confident and refined. What follows is an unusual friendship as Eileen and Rebecca prove to be surprisingly compatible. Hints sprinkled throughout the film begin to suggest that the friendship could be heading into dangerous territory due to Eileen’s fascination with Rebecca, but delving further into this topic would get into spoiler territory.
With Eileen and Rebecca’s friendship at the heart of the film, the journey director Oldroyd and screenwriters Goebel and Moshfegh take the audience on is one of great intrigue and anticipation. Unfortunately, the journey proves to be far more interesting than the destination.
As the film transitions to its third act, a plot twist occurs that changes the movie entirely. The plot twist is positively staggering and definitely takes the film into a different direction than one would expect. However, the issue with Eileen lies not with its climactic twist, but how it goes about executing and exploring the aftermath of the twist. The effective change of direction provides ample narrative and thematic opportunities that startlingly don’t come to fruition. It’s seemingly only a few scenes after the twist occurs that the film winds down to a disjointed and unsatisfying ending, before the credits begin to roll and jarringly bring the film to a close. At a brisk 98 minutes, Eileen feels like a film in desperate need for a longer and grander third act, one that justifies the film’s slow and intriguing build-up and one that makes the most of its effective plot twist.
Although McKenzie and Hathaway are the center-pieces of this missed opportunity of a film, supporting performances from Marin Ireland and Shea Whigham warrant particular praise. Ireland, whose previous work includes the Amazon Studios series Sneaky Pete, plays a small yet pivotal role and produces a performance in a single scene that overshadows the entirety of the film’s accomplished cast. Whigham, meanwhile, plays Ellison’s alcoholic and emotionally abusive father, whose cruelty juxtaposes the grandiosity of Hathaway’s character. Whigham has made a career of effective supporting turns in various projects like Joker and American Hustle, and leaves a lasting impression as a troubled figure in Eileen.
Eileen is a modern Hitchcockian thriller with all of the ingredients necessary to culminate in an intriguing and intelligent feature. Frustratingly, though, Eileen falls short of its potential. While a tense and slow-burn journey in the first two acts fosters a genuine interest in and curiosity for what’s to come, the aftermath of a third act plot twist is severely mishandled. This plot twist, while initially effective due to its unpredictability, is startlingly under-explored and very quickly leads to an unsatisfying and jarring conclusion. Scene-stealing supporting performances from Marin Ireland and Shea Whigham complement and even overshadow leading actresses Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway at times, although the two stars do deliver solid performances here. Eileen has a lot going for it, and would seemingly check all the boxes to make it delightfully Hitchcockian. However, while there’s intrigue and suspense to be had here, ultimately, the ingredients fail to produce the intended effect.