Festival buzz is tricky. There’s a heavy burden to bear in having the first definitive take about a thing, whether that’s overly positive or too harshly critical. Most movies, especially Sundance ones, are deeply, radically fine if we’re being honest! I’m reminded, eternally, of the following Tweet:
No film at this year’s Sundance has been more sharply divisive than William Oldroyd’s EILEEN, adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut novel, inspiring heaping praise and baffled distaste in equal measure. To those who’ve read the novel, this should not come as a shock: Moshfegh’s twisted psychosexual noir is nothing if not abrasive, and the book’s defining trait is perhaps its boldness, a dynamic Oldroyd centers in his adaptation to great effect. Its tonal tightrope is a tricky one—pitch-black comedy, yes, but also queerness, the erotic thriller, a warped coming-of-age, and camp appeal in spades.
In other words, I’m going on the record: EILEEN, in my book, is a five-star film, and it will remain a five-star film when it is released.
The swirling CAROL comparisons are certainly apt. Much like Todd Haynes’ seminal 2015 romance, EILEEN is set at Christmas and, at least at first, appears to center an ingénue in desperate need of self-actualization, which she finds from a disarmingly seductive older woman serving fierce blonde bob. The parallels are so apparent that it’s hard not to shake the idea that Oldroyd, and co-screenwriters Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, made these references knowingly, as if to mislead audiences. The film centers, fittingly, on its eponymous character; in a career-best performance from Thomasin McKenzie, we see just how much of an unfulfilled loser Eileen is. She’s 24, living with her alcoholic father who spares no opportunity to remind her how much of a disappointment she is (played by an excellent Shea Wigham). She’s a secretary-lite at the local boys’ prison, a workplace whose dreary production design serves only to make the circumstances that much grimmer. There, too, she’s constantly reminded of her inadequacy. Her peers and superiors ridicule her, and her crush refuses to even give her the time of day. The film even seems to be in on the joke, framing Eileen’s entire existence in drab colors and centering some remarkably pitiful moments in her day-to-day life (starting with the opening scene). Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably weirder, grosser, and just straight up sadder.
And then her “Carol” shows up in the form of Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway, serving cunt to an unprecedented degree). Rebecca is the absolute antithesis of everything Eileen knows and represents—accomplished, composed, glamorous, blonde, likable. It’s a story that’s too familiar. Not that it makes it any less engrossing to watch Hathaway at her seductive best. Girl meets girl, girl becomes obsessed with girl, girl starts taking on girl’s traits. But beneath that CAROL-meets-REBECCA-meets-3-WOMEN premise, Oldroyd drops hints that EILEEN is a weirder, darker affair than it might appear. His editing is harsh and jagged, and Richard Reed Parry’s off-kilter jazz score lends a restless air. Nothing is ever quite right in the world of EILEEN, even when it leans toward the conventional, perhaps its greatest trick of all.
Above all, though, EILEEN succeeds for the very simple reason of letting some really accomplished and deeply-underrated actresses chew all the well-designed scenery at their disposal. McKenzie and Hathaway constantly surprise the audience with some of the boldest acting choices this side of BIG LITTLE LIES (with McKenzie’s raw electricity being so palpable that it made me brush past some questionable accent work). At risk of sounding utterly blasé: they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore!
To be sure, EILEEN will not work for everyone—and already hasn’t!—but considering its source material, it was never going to. In the midst of a fest that largely seems content to play it safe, especially in the wake of CODA’s Best Picture win after debuting at the 2021 festival, Oldroyd’s unwavering commitment to a bold and frankly deranged vision is inspiring.
And I, for one, am eating it right up.