‘Eileen’ review: A sharp thriller that boldly deconstructs the female protagonist
Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie in 'Eileen'

The new film Eileen is a good kind of weird. From the setting to the main characters, the thriller creates a quirky yet unrelenting world of unstable personalities and thick tension. The intimate movie masterfully presents an unlikely heroine, exposes her complexities, tears her apart, and then builds her back up in a new and haunting way. It’s a breath of fresh air in a film genre plagued by overdone clichés and paint-by-number plot twists.

Directed by William Oldroyd, Eileen is based on the novel of the same name written by Otessa Moshfegh. Taking place in 1960s Massachusetts, the film tells the story of a young woman named Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) who works as a secretary at a juvenile detention facility. Living what she feels is a rather dull life, she soon meets the facility’s new psychiatrist, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), who is glamorous and sophisticated. They strike up a friendship that eventually draws them into dangerous new territory.

What’s most compelling about Eileen is how, ultimately, it’s a story about how an oppressive society can be so suppressive to women as to drive them to various degrees of darkness. No one is precisely an upstanding character in the film. Some are even downright despicable to a degree. Still, in regards to the women, it’s clear that each of the paths they take is greatly influenced by the claustrophobic boxes of expectations that have been placed upon them in a patriarchal society.

Eileen is a young woman of so-called marrying age who is single, working in a prison as she cares for her alcoholic and verbally abusive father. It’s a thankless life as she’s been made to take on the role of caregiver since her mother passed away and her sister married and moved out. Eileen often escapes within her mind, thinking out mental (sometimes violent) scenarios that she doesn’t yet dare to carry out in real life. She’s not the stereotypical femme fatale but also not completely naïve and innocent. She exists in this grey area of awakening.

Eileen is sexual. She has desires, wants, and needs. It’s in this longing that she begins to find herself, even when it tiptoes in the arena of the taboo. Most human beings are complex, just like Eileen, yet far too often, female characters in media are relegated to neat boxes of either/or. The film boldly pushes against this and benefits significantly from this rebellious act.

Thomasin McKenzie displays all of these complexities within Eileen in a natural and gripping way. Even in some of the character’s more morally questionable moments, McKenzie performs with such a compelling vulnerability that the audience has no choice but to continue rooting for her. Her performance is complimented perfectly with the equally captivating portrayal of Eileen’s new obsession—Rebecca—played by Anne Hathaway.

Rebecca is a professional unmarried woman in a male-dominated world. Her confidence and sex appeal immediately draw Eileen in as the younger girl longs for something different than her current life. Together, they walk down a dark path that ends up being an exploration of self-realization and a condemnation of a society that often places women in impossible situations.

Thomasin McKenzie in ‘Eileen’

Hathaway delivers an alluring and layered performance. Her Rebecca is refined, but there’s something slightly fractured underneath her put-together facade. Hathaway manages to allow us a glimpse into those cracks honestly. She’s another grey character that some will feel compelled to place into the hero or villain category, but it can be argued that she exists in both.

Other themes explored deal with the corruption of authoritative figures and the confines of marriage and motherhood for women. Several scenes in the film will no doubt be uncomfortable, perhaps even triggering, for viewers. Thankfully, none of the heavy topics feel forced or gratuitous. The film never overstays its welcome, coming in at 97 minutes, giving just enough for audiences to mull over without being overwhelmed.

Since Eileen is marketed as a psychological thriller, some will watch it with certain expectations for its pacing and central plot. The film subverts many of these expectations and walks its own path. This subversion makes for a unique story that will have viewers thinking about the characters—and the ending—long after the credits have rolled.

Eileen will be released in theaters on December 1, 2023

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Chauncey K. Robinson
Chauncey K. Robinson

Chauncey K. Robinson is an award winning journalist and film critic. Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she has a strong love for storytelling and history. She believes narrative greatly influences the way we see the world, which is why she's all about dissecting and analyzing stories and culture to help inform and empower the people.