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Tomasin McKenzie in red lips and a fur coat looking nervously off-camera in the movie Eileen Photo: Jeong Park/Neon

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Some movies are safe. Eileen is a dare.

This thriller invites audiences to play a guessing game where everyone wins

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Sometimes a film doesn’t feel like a dialogue between audience and artist so much as it feels like a grand game. A dare, perhaps, with a filmmaker challenging viewers to pin down what kind of story they’re watching before they reach the end. William Oldroyd’s taut thriller Eileen feels like that kind of film: a dodgy psychological drama of small twitches and barely contained passions, furtively placing one foot on the ground, then asking you to guess where the next will go.

Based on the novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, who co-wrote the script with Luke Goebel (also her writing partner on the 2022 Jennifer Lawrence movie Causeway), Eileen takes place in 1960s Boston, where Eileen Dunlop (Old and The Power of the Dogs Thomasin McKenzie) works as a clerk for a local prison. There, she meets new counselor Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a glamorous cosmopolitan vision of a woman. Eileen is immediately smitten. As their relationship deepens, both women enable each other’s worst impulses, until they’re in deep over their heads.

Oldroyd, known for 2016’s arresting period piece Lady Macbeth, keeps the camera as tight as Eileen’s script. His solution for adapting a first-person novel that hinges on a character’s interiority is to make that interiority the central mystery of the film. Eileen’s cast is small, and everyone in it is performing somehow: Eileen’s alcoholic father, Jim (Shea Whigham), wants to carry on as if he were still a member of the police force, even though all he does is drink on a recliner. The other secretaries and clerks in the prison’s offices titter and gossip in a well-defined, mundane display of working womanhood, tsk-tsk-ing Eileen for the clumsy way she imitates their well-practiced dance.

Anne Hathaway, in a blond wig and shearling coat, smokes leaning against a neon-drenched wall as Rebecca while Thomasin McKenzie looks on in the movie Eileen. Photo: Jeong Park/Neon

Rebecca, too, is a performance. How could she not be? Her hair is so perfect, her poise so practiced, her makeup assured in its application. Where, Eileen silently wonders, did this woman learn to be this way, and could Eileen learn too?

In making Eileen’s character flesh, Thomasin McKenzie walks a dramatic tightrope: effortlessly showing how much effort her character puts into performing for others, while also not tipping her hand about what, if anything, resides in Eileen’s soul. Both Eileen’s script and McKenzie’s choices depict her character as someone who wants to be human, even a certain kind of human, but doesn’t know how, or even to what end. So she settles on voyeurism — the film’s opening scene depicts her sitting in her car on a lovers’ lane, surreptitiously watching a couple of strangers make out in a second car. She flirts with the idea of masturbation, only to abruptly stop and stuff filthy snow down her skirt instead.

Eileen sees Rebecca as her long-awaited North Star, and in her obsession, it becomes difficult to tell whether she wants to be with Rebecca, or be Rebecca. McKenzie gives no clues to her character’s inner thoughts — her life basically runs on autopilot. And Moshfegh and Goebel’s script only offers one darkly comic insight: Eileen’s recurring fantasy of killing her father.

Thomasin McKenzie stands in a kind of ugly brown sweater looking on nervously at a blonde Anne Hathaway doing office work, glamorously, in the movie Eileen Photo: Jeong Park/Neon

In spite of its compactness and intimate focus, Oldroyd maintains enough ironic distance that the audience is never fully immersed in Eileen’s subjective viewpoint. In the way he lingers on details and nervous fidgets, the director invites the audience to speculate about what’s really going on with Eileen, how that will inform whatever ill-advised decisions she makes, and what, finally, lies beneath Rebecca’s performance.

This is how Oldroyd invites the audience to speculate as to what kind of movie Eileen will turn out to be, as he flits from pulp thrills to cringe comedy to psychosexual cat-and-mouse game and beyond. It’s possible that not every viewer will enjoy being toyed with — on first viewing, Eileen’s opacity can be frustrating, the contours of her story baffling. Yet Eileen’s lean structure is also wise in how it lingers: on Eileen trying on her dead mother’s dress, on lipstick stains on a cigarette, on the golden glow that illuminates Rebecca in a bar, or on the smoke invading a car’s cabin.

These understated images make indelible impressions, encouraging the audience to replay the film in their mind as they watch it, to actively take part in the dance Oldroyd has carefully choreographed, and consider how different it might feel once you begin again, knowing all the steps. Eileen came to play. Will you?