Early December is the time to attend to the usual list of things to do before the year ends, such as pay overdue bills, buy those last-minute gifts, or grudgingly attend painfully awkward Christmas parties. It’s also a time to feast on the best cinema has to offer, as studios and independent distributors alike release movie after movie designed to win awards and the stone-cold hearts of critics worldwide.
Chances are, you’ve seen Oppenheimerand have at least heard of Killers of the Flower Moon, Napoleonor The Holdovers. All of those movies are excellent and deserve to be seen, but there’s one movie that’s flying under the radar that’s equally worthy of attention. Eileen is being marketed as a thriller, and while it does have its share of thrills, it’s so much more than that. It’s also a great atmospheric mood piece and an excellent showcase for two actresses at the top of their game. It also possesses one of the most infuriating endings of the year. Eileen is freaky (you just never know quite where it’s going) and indefinable, and it’s 2023’s most beguiling movie.
Eileen has a great sense of time and place
Set in a Boston suburb in the 1960s, Eileen centers around Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie), a young woman trapped in a dreary life. She tends to her alcoholic ex-cop father at home and is practically a walking ghost at work, a drab correctional facility for juvenile delinquents. It’s no surprise Eileen has a rich fantasy life, and frequently dreams of seducing one of her co-workers or blowing her drunken dad’s head off. Can you blame her?
Everything changes with the arrival of Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a glamorous psychologist with stunning platinum hair and a too-good-to-be-true charm that instantly captivates Eileen. What’s the deal with Rebecca? And why does she seem so drawn to the plain and seemingly boring Eileen, who is ignored by everyone else? As the story unfolds, both Rebecca and Eileen discover they don’t quite know the other that well after all, and that good intentions can lead to tragedy.
Movies are supposed to take you to new worlds you’ve never been to, right? Well, one of Eileen‘s strengths is how vividly it paints its broken-down setting. You can practically feel the chill and ennui seeping out of Eileen’s small town, which is caught between the square conformity of the 1950s and the post-Camelot era of the mid-1960s. While the Bahston accents run thick and heavy, they are never cartoonish; they are believably authentic or, in one character’s case, so believably inauthentic that it makes you question their motives. There’s a real sense of time and time place in Eileen that grounds it even when its plot goes deliberately off the rails.
Anne Hathaway shines as the femme fatale
Eileen wouldn’t work as well as it does without its two lead performers, both of whom give career-best performances. As Eileen, McKenzie is superb at conveying the quiet desperation of a woman who is seeing life pass her by. Eileen is a dangerous dreamer, and her flights of fancy that once shielded her from her mundane life quickly threaten to unravel what little joy she has as the movie progresses. There’s something a little off with Eileen, and McKenzie does a terrific job at clueing us in on her oddness without making her a caricature.
With her Marilyn Monroe hairdo and penchant for form-fitting pencil skirts, Rebecca is a showy character, and Hathaway does her justice. It’s what critics call a “star performance,” one that is almost indescribable, but you know it when you see it. Hathaway understands that as written, Rebecca is a little bit ridiculous; after all, how many movie-star glamazon psychologists existed in Boston in the early 1960s?
She has fun playing the fantasy that Rebecca represents; she’s everything Eileen desires — beauty, brains, grace, and guts — even when the shit hits the fan later on. It’s role that finally fulfills Hathaway’s meme status as Mother; she’s instantly iconic, and she serves face and talent in Eileen like no other.
Eileen has an infuriating ending that’s absolutely perfect
It’s hard to talk about Eileen‘s ending without spoiling it, but what’s so great about the movie is how inconclusive its ending is. The movie doesn’t satisfactorily wrap things up and answers all the questions it raised previously; instead, it simply … ends. Or rather, the story itself ends, but Eileen herself continues to carry on.
Confused? You’ll understand after you’ve watch the movie. And you may disagree with me on whether or not Eileen should end the way it does. It takes nerve to conclude a movie without really answering its central mystery, and to raise even more questions, and present more mysteries, than before. That’s what makes Eileen so memorable, and so haunting. Just when you think you have a grasp on what it’s about, it slips away from you, and leaves you guessing what the hell you just watched.
Good. We need more movies like that. Tidy endings can be satisfying, but open-ended ones like Eileen‘s have their own pleasures, too. In my mind, the movie hasn’t really stopped playing. I’m still unwrapping its many layers, and trying to solve the unsolvable mystery of Eileen herself.
Eileen is now playing in limited release. It will expand nationwide later in December.