Y’all need to stop sleeping on Thomasin McKenzie. I realize that pretty faces are a dime a dozen in Hollywood and there are too many brilliant young ingenues for anyone to keep track of, but just look at McKenzie’s CV.
Leave No Trace. Jojo Rabbit. Old. The Power of the Dog. Last Night in Soho. I didn’t even like all of those movies, but every single one of them was a bold creative choice at the very least. McKenzie keeps attaching herself to all these huge creative movies that range from “admirable failure” to “outright masterpiece”, and she’s amazing in every single one of them. But it’s like she vanishes into the ether after every one.
So now we have Eileen, in which McKenzie stars opposite Anne Hathaway. And they’re under the direction of William Oldroyd, who gave Florence Pugh her huge breakout by way of Lady Macbeth. Let’s fucking go!!!
Eileen comes to us from the husband/wife screenwriting team of Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, who adapted the script from Moshfegh’s novel. The scene is set at Christmastime, at some point in the LBJ administration, at a small Massachusetts town. Oh, and I should point out that the film goes into heavy detail regarding sexual assault and drug abuse, not to mention graphic depictions of murder and suicide, so CONTENT WARNING.
McKenzie plays Eileen, daughter of a disgraced former police chief (Jim, played by Shea Whigham). Long story short, Eileen dropped out of college to help look after her ailing mother, and took up a short-term job as a secretary in a local prison for young men. Roughly three years later, her mom is dead, her dad is drinking himself to death, she’s still living with him, she’s driving a ramshackle deathtrap car, and she’s still working as a put-upon prison secretary. She has no social life, she’s spending most of her paycheck on her daddy’s booze, and working around so many inmates and prison guards all day has left her sexually frustrated to an unhealthy degree.
I might add that Eileen apparently has a sister (whom we never meet) who somehow got married and cut off all ties on her way to “anywhere but here”, yet Eileen somehow can’t manage the same escape trick. Curious.
Enter Rebecca (Hathaway), the new prison psychiatrist freshly graduated from Harvard. Rebecca immediately takes a shine to Eileen, as our protagonist is apparently the only other woman around who’s both pleasant to be around and younger than middle age. As for Rebecca, she’s confident, independent, educated, attractive, sexually empowered, and pretty much everything Eileen wishes she was.
Thus Eileen takes to remaking herself in Rebecca’s image. Specifically, she takes up smoking, drinking coffee, drinking alcohol, putting on makeup, etc. Naturally, this sudden and abrupt shift in her unhealthy habits takes a predictable toll on her body. More importantly, when Eileen starts putting on makeup and staying out late (and wearing her mother’s dresses because she doesn’t have any of her own), her dad immediately jumps to the conclusion that she’s a disrespectful slut and shames her accordingly. To say nothing of how Eileen went for three years totally sober, then she comes in to work hungover just the one time and her coworkers (her female coworkers, mind you) call her a lush.
It speaks to the sexist double standards that so many women have to live with. If Eileen keeps her head down and doesn’t make any trouble, she’s treated like a doormat. And the moment she starts asserting herself and having fun on her own terms, she’s demeaned as a floozy.
In turn, this shows a larger problem: Eileen can’t win. She’s outgrown her childhood home, and her one reason for staying behind is a father who’s determined to go out with a busted liver whether she can help it or not. This brings us to the theme of generational trauma and the contentious relationship between individuals and family.
At times, it’s hard to tell if Jim is actively trying to drive his daughter away from him, or if he’s trying to drag her down with him. (The answer varies depending on his drunkenness, most likely.) Compare that to Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), a young convict who got put away for brutally murdering his father (also a cop, I might add). Repeatedly, the other characters ask how anyone could do something as awful as killing his own father in cold blood. Quite tellingly, Eileen herself is the only one who never asks this question. She doesn’t outright answer, either.
What we’ve got here is a coming-of-age story in which Eileen gradually comes to be strong and/or desperate enough to finally take the leap and get rid of her baggage so she can find her own life. And she’s using Rebecca as her mentor in this process. Which might not be the wisest choice, given how suspicious she can act and how little we know about her.
I might add that the film includes quite a few fake-outs, depicted as Eileen’s idle daydreams and what she’d like to do in a particular situation. Eventually, it got to a point where I could watch Eileen shoot herself in the head (again, CONTENT WARNING), and immediately know that it didn’t really happen. Even so, simply knowing that this is where Eileen’s head was at did a lot to keep the pressure on, with the knowledge that Eileen could snap at any moment and do something drastically violent. Which makes it an appropriately huge deal in the third act, when Eileen does indeed do something horribly violent and the double fake-out assures us that it really did happen this time.
Basically put, what we’ve got here is a slow burn. Between lingering questions about the Lee Polk case, Rebecca’s oddly perfect life, Jim’s violent drunken death throes, and Eileen’s deteriorating mental health, there are a lot of factors here that could break any number of ways and bring everything else crashing down. Thus we’re kept waiting and watching to see how bad things get until Hathaway finally gets to deliver That Line and the third act begins with a bang.
McKenzie and Hathaway deserve no shortage of praise for anchoring the film as well as they do. The both of them are playing well into their respective wheelhouses, the chemistry between them is spot-on, and it’s incredible how the both of them fire on all cylinders in such a way that we’re kept guessing how much is going on beneath the surface. Even so, the unsung heroes of this movie are in the supporting cast.
I realize this may be a rather sweeping claim, given Shea Whigham’s long and extraordinary career as a character actor, but I feel quite confident in saying that this is his best work on record. This character could’ve easily been a one-note two-dimensional bully, but Whigham layers Jim with so many different shades of despair and anger and loathing that there truly is some degree of nuance and sympathy there. Likewise, Marin Ireland only gets one major scene in this movie, but it’s the fucking climax and she damn near powers it singlehandedly! Astonishing work.
Eileen is another one of those movies that lives and dies on its third act, and your mileage may vary as to whether the setup is worth the payoff. For my part, I would enthusiastically answer in the affirmative. The performances are compelling from top to bottom, and the title character’s development arc is engaging from start to finish. It certainly helps that the themes about generational trauma, gaining integrity and courage, and the harm of sexist double-standards are all portrayed in thoughtful and heartfelt ways. Even better, the film is paced in such a way that the 100-minute runtime feels breathless.
I’m perfectly happy to give this a recommendation. Give it a try at your earliest convenience, and while you’re at it, go back and watch some of Thomasin McKenzie’s earlier works. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Leave No Trace or Jojo Rabbit at this point, you don’t even know what you’re missing out on.