2023, R, 98 min. Directed by William Oldroyd. Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham.
REVIEWED By Alejandra Martinez, Fri., Dec. 1, 2023
Over the course of her writing career, author Ottessa Moshfegh (My Year of Rest and Relaxation) has created tales of unfortunate, unlikable, and downright repulsive protagonists. Narcissists, weirdos, and outcasts litter her bibliography. Her award-winning first novel, 2015's Eileen, established this character type as her signature, and coincidentally also happens to be her first novel to be adapted for film. With a screenplay co-written by Luke Goebel and Moshfegh and directed by William Oldroyd, this adaptation transfers over Moshfegh’s bleak wit and ethos well enough. Still, some of the compelling internal nature of her work gets lost in translation.
Eileen (McKenzie, Last Night in Soho) is a secretary at a boys prison in 1960s Massachusetts. There, she helps the families of inmates check in and get their paperwork done pre-visit. In her spare time, she takes care of her brutal drunk father (Whigham, doing a superbly wincing job doling out drunk insults) while denying herself bodily pleasures. She takes care of her “propensity for sweets” by chewing and spitting out mountains of chocolates, and plays voyeur at the local make-out point until she gets too aroused and ices herself with snow. Her life seems static until the arrival of the new prison psychologist, Rebecca (Hathaway). Eileen is immediately taken with the glamorous new doctor, and the pair becomes close friends, finding company in each other that they can’t get elsewhere. One night, things take a turn that will test their bond and change both of their lives.
Eileen does a fair job of capturing the mood of Moshfegh’s writing – dryly funny, matter-of-fact, and nonjudgmental about her characters. Still, I found myself missing the unhinged internality Moshfegh so expertly renders in her novels. This is, of course, always a tricky point when adapting books to the big screen, and the film tries its best to have us peek into Eileen’s inner world with abrupt daydreams showing us her wishes (mostly shooting her father), and then comparing it with the stark reality she’s facing instead. It’s helpful but still doesn’t contribute to a deeper inner portrait of Eileen.
Speaking of the plot, it takes a while to get to where it ultimately wants to go. At least it has some dark and depraved fun along the way, taking us to a destination we sense is coming but still feels gut-wrenching when we reach it.
Eileen certainly looks great, with gorgeous cinematography from Ari Wegner backing up the smart direction of Oldroyd, who highlights the clear influences on the film (I thought a lot about Hitchcock and Todd Haynes’ Carol while watching) while making his own, distinct choices with the film. It’s a familiar and at the same time danker, darker take on those movies, using film language we’re all familiar with to deliver a new story.
Overall, Eileen is a pretty close adaptation of the mood of Moshfegh’s stories, even though some lost elements dull the author’s unique and singular voice. If the script meanders its way toward its unsettling end, it still manages to stay compelling.