In the first scene of “Eileen,” the protagonist stakes out in her car on a dreary winter lakefront lovers’ lane in the Boston outskirts. As another couple makes out in a backseat of the next car, Eileen watches, glowering lustily, and grabs a handful of muddy snow, shoves it down her pants, and masturbates.
The rest of “Lady Macbeth” director William Oldroyd’s second feature never quite matches the giddy perversity of that image, but no matter, because this stylish 1960s-set noir adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s mean and pungent novel of the same name is a dark treat throughout. Thomasin McKenzie, playing the title character, and Anne Hathaway, playing the alluring blonde-headed woman that seemingly drops from the sky and into her life, give career-best performances in an oddly touching queer almost-romance that feels like a cross between “Carol” and Hitchcock (Moshfegh herself has named his film “Rebecca,” which shares a name with Hathaway’s character here, as a touchstone). But it’s also entirely its own weird, beautiful thing, even if it doesn’t quite rub audiences as deeply in the muck of Eileen’s miserable existence as the novel did.
Eileen’s days and ways form a chain of unhappy moments. She lives in a poky Victorian with her alcoholic, jobless, out-of-it father (Shea Whigham) whose waking hours are spent boozing joylessly in a recliner. Eileen, who is 24, works at a prison, mostly at a remove from her coworkers, who want nothing to do with her. She overdoes it on chocolate laxatives, rarely bathes, and has workplace sexual fantasies about a lithe prison guard she’s barely ever spoken to (Owen Teague). Director Oldroyd has toned down the deliberate repulsiveness of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” author Moshfegh’s second novel, but you still get the sense here of a young woman fascinated by the disgustingness of life and as a means of expiation for underachieving — and for staving off boredom. But she also gets off on degrading herself, which is part of the film’s sick pleasure.
Enter Rebecca Saint John (Hathaway), the new psychologist at the prison, who has an almost Jackie Kennedy-esque aura about her, a platinum-blonde flipped bob, and cigarette-wielding charisma that just oozes out of her. Eileen is almost immediately intoxicated, and the feeling is mutual, because Rebecca, unlike her father, doesn’t flinch at Eileen’s depraved underside. When she catches Eileen poring over bloody crime scene photos in the prison’s archives, Rebecca entreats Eileen for an invitation to drinks.
Hathaway has never been better in a role that feels as tailor-made for her as Olga Mill’s elegant period costumes. She gets to deliver scrumptious, tart-tongued lines like “I shouldn’t smoke, but I do.” Eileen and Rebecca have a heady, woozy chemistry reminiscent of Todd Haynes’ aforementioned lesbian romance, and yes, those comparisons are going to stick because, like Rooney Mara’s Therese Belivet, Eileen is a young woman pulled out of her self-made shell by an older, more confident one. McKenzie, though a little shaky with the Boston accent, effectively pulls off Eileen’s mousiness and aversion for the world while also layering that with a heightening glee underneath her. Rebecca has brought her back to life.
Screenwriters Luke Goebel and Moshfegh introduce a subplot that takes on a more sinister dimension as the movie rolls along: one young prisoner by the name of Lee Polk (Sam Nivola) has brutally killed his father, and Rebecca is attempting to get to the root of the cause amid his histrionic mother (Marin Ireland, who eventually runs off with the movie) flittering in and out of the prison. Lee’s story parallels Eileen’s own to an extent: she’s eventually handed a Chekhov’s gun by a police officer who requisitions the firearm from her father, as he’s too unkempt and unfit to ably keep possession of it. She fantasizes about blowing his brains out, and her own, in hilariously grisly fantasy sequences that pump jolty jump scares into a movie that mainly ambles along at a leisurely pace — until the second half.
It’s impossible to talk about the gasp-eliciting twist “Eileen” takes — when Rebecca invites Eileen over to her house for Christmas — without spoiling the whole thing. But let’s just say that another criminal subplot involving the Polks is introduced, and it brings Eileen and Rebecca more intimately together, turning “Eileen” into a kind of cracked queer Christmas noir. Marin Ireland — Marin freaking Ireland — also delivers an unforgettable monologue that flips the movie upside down on its sick, sick head. And that’s all we’ll say on that.
Oldroyd and cinematographer Ari Wegner evoke an immersively detailed world beneath a fuzzed-out celluloid grit. Oldroyd’s affinity for rear projection in a couple of driving scenes and the Val Lewton-style typeface in the opening credits crawl summon a nostalgia for the noirish romances about unloved but not bad people of yore — but the stylistic choices never feel hokey. Richard Reed Parry’s score, mixing jazz with more shivery ominous orchestral arrangements, amply abets the movie’s toxic pull.
Oldroyd is clearly a master assembler of styles, but he never lets his vision outshine the wonderful central performances at the movie’s core. Several Hathaway moments especially seem almost built for social media excerpting, including a moment where she explains to Eileen why she loves living alone because she can do whatever she wants and even scream whenever she wants, and then Hathaway lets out a giddy hysterical scream at the top of her lungs.
McKenzie, in one scene involving a basement and a gun, looks absolutely stunning, and watching Eileen slowly disarm under Rebecca’s guiles is an almost impossibly romantic experience. Moshfegh and Oldroyd have a thing for unlikable characters — see his “Lady Macbeth,” starring Florence Pugh as a heartless and miserably married woman who burns down her life, or her “Year of Rest and Relaxation,” about a woman determined to sleep her life away. But with “Eileen,” they’ve found characters who may sound unlikable on paper but are actually irresistibly lovable.
“Eileen” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.