PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 21: Anne Hathaway gives an interview during the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Eileen” Premiere at Eccles Center Theatre on January 21, 2023, in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
By Bailey Pennick
It’s hard to put your finger on, but you know that there’s something disquieting behind the polished ’60s style, sweeping score, and mousey protagonist of Eileen — the sophomore feature by William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth). Adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel, the film subverts these standard melodramatic film trappings, quickly leaving viewers with an unnerving feeling that mirrors that of its subject.
Love the look of a 1960s period piece? Cool, this one is set in a brutal Boston winter, with Ari Wegner’s masterful cinematography highlighting the beauty and the barren nature of New England around the holidays. Looking forward to being swept away by romantic grand orchestrals? Richard Reed Perry’s (Arcade Fire) arresting score instead leaves you feeling uneasy through disjointed melodies and repetitive swells. And as for the character of Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) herself? Well, that meek exterior wearing her deceased mother’s clothing hides a wild, disjointed imagination — swinging from graphic sexual desires with prison guards and inmates to fantasies of suicide and murder.
It’s this intentional conflict between the film’s initial glossy facade and brutal, cracked reality that forces you into sharing Eileen’s headspace. Even when a new companion floats into her workplace at the prison, briefly showing Eileen that there’s more to life than just work and taking care of her cold, alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), there’s something strange about the newfound attention.
Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway) is a powerful bombshell blonde psychiatrist unfazed by the prison’s systemic boys’ club, who loves a stiff drink and can hold her own in a bar brawl, in heels. She’s a beacon of hope for the aimless twentysomething, but what’s drawing her to Eileen? The film intentionally eludes answering that, instead opting for a much more harrowing final act — exposing Rebecca’s plot for vigilante justice against a prisoner’s mother (a breakout performance by Marin Ireland).
The twists and turns of Eileen’s ending left some of the Eccles Theatre audience rightfully stunned. During the post-premiere discussion, Whigham addressed what drew him to this unnerving project: “You’re looking for a challenge and you’re looking for something that scares you,” he explains, pausing to collect his thoughts. “[And with a project like this] you just wonder how are you going to pull it off. I’m still in awe.”
He, of course, is speaking about the film’s production, but his words also unlock new understandings about both Eileen and Rebecca: taking chances on something that excites and scares them all at the same time.