Sundance 2023: ‘Eileen’ is a compelling portrait of a woman’s descent into darkness

Sundance 2023: ‘Eileen’ is a compelling portrait of a woman’s descent into darkness

One of the biggest strengths of William Oldroyd’s Eileen, starring Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, is that it knows exactly what kind of movie it is. It also knows how the audience sees it, looking at its petite 24-year-old protagonist (McKenzie) living in a dreary town in Massachusetts during the 1960s. And the film uses this knowledge to great effect: by quietly building up to the moment before it pulls the rug from underneath our feet.

It’s a lonely world out here for Eileen, a place she thought she had left behind while in college. However, after a year, she is summoned back because of her mother’s deteriorating health. After her mother’s passing, Eileen is saddled with the responsibility to take care of her alcoholic father, while also working in prison administration. She never seems to quite fit into the setting, as she’s sneered at by some of her older colleagues — mocked for having her own thoughts, instead of quietly following orders. In her twenties, it’s hinted that Eileen is also sexually starved — causing her imagination to go wild around prison guards and inmates standing in corners.

A happy life

So, it’s understandable when vivacious psychiatrist Dr Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) walks into the prison establishment, it doesn’t take a lot to rock Eileen’s world. Rebecca is everything Eileen probably aspires to become someday. Confidently holding a cigarette in between her fingers through most conversations, self-assured, fiercely protective of her independence, unabashed about her opinions. Rebecca is not so much a stickler for rules (most of which are made by men around her) — something Eileen feels comforted by, considering how in her own father’s eyes, she’s good for nothing.

Also read: Sundance 2023: ‘Fair Play’ is a stellar, breathless indictment of the ‘nice guy’

McKenzie, who broke out in Leave No Trace (2018) and Jojo Rabbit a year later, has earlier played the doe-eyed teenager staring into space. Director Oldroyd uses this familiarity to introduce us to a meek person, who is staggering around in the dark, trying to discover her own impulses. Hathaway as Rebecca plays the veteran with elan. She tells Eileen how much she values her own independence, her pursuit for bodily pleasure, and the forthrightness with which she does so many things because, hell, she just feels like doing them. In a scene at a local bar, when a man tries to persist in dancing with the two women, Rebecca elbows him in one swift movement and continues to dance as if nothing can come in the way between her and a good time. She’s that determined at leading a ‘happy life’ sans society’s unnecessary intervention.

A multidimensional ‘villain’

Even though most of the film is centered around Eileen and Rebecca, there are characters like Eileen’s alcoholic father (and former chief of police) essayed by Shea Whigham, who play catalyst in her transformation. Constantly berating her, humiliating her for not being a ‘woman’ enough, and constantly comparing her to her married sister Joanie, who left home after being unable to cope with his tantrums. Whigham, who has emerged as one of Hollywood’s most intriguing supporting actors in recent times, always manages to colour his venom-spewing monster with a shade of paternal concern — never letting it go on to become a unidimensional ‘villain’.

The film, starting out possibly as a queer love story or a young girl’s coming-of-age reminiscent of Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015), completely shifts gears in the final 20 minutes. It’s a sharp turn for the narrative as both Rebecca and Eileen become embroiled in a sticky situation. Albeit with some abruptness, we start to see Eileen take charge and see how her mentor/protege dynamic with Rebecca is reversed in a few minutes. Eileen has never been given the dignity of being asked to speak her mind, and that’s ensured that no one really knew what actually goes on in her head. As the final stretch unboxes Eileen’s true colours, one can’t help but be impressed by how Oldroyd set the stage for this eventual reveal. If one really has to nitpick, then the “twist” seems to truncate a more complex arc — but, rest assured, it works in favour of the film.

A bitter aftertaste

Eileen is actor Thomasin McKenzie’s best work till date. As we’ve been seeing hints of brilliance in the likes of Last Night in Soho (2022) and last year’s Oscar darling The Power of the Dog (2022) — McKenzie spreads her wings here, as she plays along with her inert demeanour and still goes on to take control of a situation with a cold, surgical precision towards the end.

Also read: Iñárritu’s ‘Bardo’: An exploration of Mexican identity and an answer to Fellini’s ‘8½’

Based on a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Ottessa Moshfegh of the same name, Eileen is adapted by Moshfegh and her husband Luke Goebbel; the duo were also responsible for last year’s Causeway, starring Jennifer Lawrence. Even that film was a quiet portrait of a young woman trying to readjust to civilian life after suffering brain trauma during her tour to Afghanistan for the US military.

While Causeway introspects about grief and loneliness, Eileen explores a young woman’s descent into darkness as she gets in touch with her perverse feelings, going on to become an origin story of sorts. The twistedness of its final moments makes Oldroyd’s film seem like dark chocolate. It leaves a bitter aftertaste, and yet it’s so darn delicious.

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