William Oldroyd's psychological thriller is misguided in its third act
The psychological thriller is a difficult genre to inhabit. One must build a slow tension and foreboding using only emotion and intention instead of actions on screen. This is achieved with differing degrees of success in Eileen (2023).
Eileen is adapted from a novel of the same name, which follows reclusive and lonely Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) who works in administration at a junior penitentiary in 1960s Massachusetts. Eileen’s seemingly dull life, living with her drunk retired father (Shea Wigham), is jolted by the arrival of a new dazzling and confident prisoner psychologist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway).
Eileen is directed by William Oldroyd, who previously brought us the equally compelling slow burn Lady Macbeth (2016). As with that film, Eileen masterfully crafts its ambience and environment, expertly placing us with our introverted main character, so that each thought is transmitted, yet no voiceover is used. Oldroyd brings a slow pace that allows him to carefully build an expectation and arc, before barging a surprising twist in the final third. This change, however, ends up hindering the film, as the more nuanced and insinuated elements that had been carefully set, are bluntly shoved aside. This then devolves the gripping psychological moments into a more generic B-movie thriller.
Eileen’s common throughline, however, is its spectacular actresses. McKenzie, while struggling with an inconsistent Massachusetts accent, is winning in scenes where she transmits wants, doubts, and memories through a largely blank face. Hathaway, meanwhile, is perfectly cast in a femme-fatale role. She is particularly impressive by not only showing the gleaming character exterior, but also hinting at something hidden underneath the glamour. It proves a welcome balance that sadly viewers get too little of.
Oldroyd lets his hand get too loose with dream sequences, cheapening the great performances that could have easily transmitted the same point. This, along with a twist that, while narratively exciting, stunted the character journeys. That’s not to take away from the first two acts, which expertly use an incrementalism in everything from the costumes to the cinematography and sound, nudging viewers into the transformation that our protagonist undergoes. If only we’d stayed on that track, Eileen would have been a fascinating film.