Based upon the prize-winning novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, Eileen is a tight knot of a film and an unusual coming-of-age that shamelessly subverts audience expectations. Thomasin McKenzie, in yet another fantastic performance, plays Eileen Dunlap, a young woman working at a male corrections facility and living with a brash, mouthy alcoholic father (Shea Whigham). She is troubled, often driving around alone, and has fantasies about sex and death. She becomes infatuated with the platinum blonde Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a psychologist newly employed at the facility. The presence of Rebecca totally upends Eileen's dull, mundane life. Both connect perhaps out of a mutual sexual attraction, and also because they are misfits. Posh-presenting, though formidable Rebecca doesn't quite fit in with the crusty, salt-of-the-earth staff, and Eileen is a loner. Eileen's confidence and personality shifts through the charismatic enigma of Rebecca. Meanwhile, Rebecca is treating a young inmate, Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), who stabbed and killed his father and Eileen is deeply perturbed and intrigued by his crime.
Director William Oldroyd who showed promise on his earlier feature Lady Macbeth, extends his affinity here for performances and visuals. Ari Wegner has already delivered rich, stylistically varied work on The Power of the Dog and Zola, and her cinematography here is equally mesmerizing. The look is a moody, mesmerizing, fuzzed-over palate that tinges the story's 1964 wintry Massachusetts atmosphere. The characters--framed in tight spaces or small against large backdrops--look like they could vanish within elements in the film at any moment. A haunting jazz scores by Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire) is eerily romantic--some of the finest film music this year. The performances are all strong and carry the film. It's always a delight to see Hathaway seizing upon a fully embodied and against-type character. Playing Lee Polk's mother is Marin Ireland; her look could be written off as seemingly meek, but she ends up being a stormy, tough-as-nails presence. She was similarly great in this year's queasy sci-fi psychological horror film Birth / Rebirth. With an ending that swings unsatisfactorily for a feature length film, Eileen is probably best taken in as a wonderfully acted and crafted mood piece.