Anyone who saw British director William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” at the Sundance Film Festival back in 2017 will hardly be surprised to hear that Oldroyd’s followup, “Eileen,” is one of the boldest provocations to hit Sundance in 2023. A blackly humorous riff on film noir that tells you with the opening notes of Richard Reed Perry’s score that it’s heading for some very dark and doomy places, it’s both a tour de force for a cast led by Thomasin McKenzie and a sign that Oldroyd hasn’t lost his unsettling touch in the seven years since his last film.
“Lady Macbeth” was a twisted and bloody drama with only vague thematic ties to Shakespeare, and it provided a powerful breakthrough role for a young Florence Pugh as a 19th-century wife whose passions could be both empowering and disturbing. “Eileen” isn’t exactly a breakthrough role for the New Zealand actress McKenzie who, since she’s already made her mark in films from “Leave No Trace” to “Last Night in Soho,” doesn’t need one of those. But the title character is a rich, weird and multifaceted young woman to play, and McKenzie calibrates the changes with precision; she and Oldroyd know we’re waiting, and they enjoy making us wait.
Eileen is a 24-year-old woman in Massachusetts who works in a prison for young men and lives with her former police-captain father (Shea Whigham) who is slipping into an angry, drunken dementia after the death of his wife. His conversations with Eileen, the one daughter who still speaks to him, are models of vicious verbal abuse disguised as everyday chatter. Some people, he tells her, are like the characters you watch make big decisions in a movie. “Other people, they just take up space and you take them for granted. That’s you, Eileen.”
And for a while, that does seem to be Eileen. The movie begins with a shot of fog rolling in and some massive dark chords that seem to herald the start of a horror flick. At first we seem to be watching the character study of a painfully timid young woman whose only action comes when she fantasizes about having sex with a guard up against the big window of a prison room.
But it’s clear that there’s more going on here than simply another Sundance drama about a lonely young woman trying to find her inner strength. The film is more aggressive than that, the music hinting at drama to come. And McKenzie drops hints that while Eileen looks timid, maybe we’re selling her short; maybe she’s not timid, she’s implacable.
Whatever she is, it starts to come out when a new psychologist arrives. Since the film – based on the 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, who co-wrote the script with Luke Goebel – is set in 1964, the arrival of a new female prison psychologist, Rebecca, is greeted with not-so-thinly veiled sexism by the prison brass. “Dr. Miss Rebecca St. John will be our new prison psychologist,” announces the warden. “She just got her PhD from Radcliffe.”
“Harvard,” corrects Rebecca curtly.
As played by Anne Hathaway, Rebecca could be a femme fatale heroine out of film noir: She’s a blonde bombshell who’s always smarter than the men around her, and one who knows how to hold a cigarette, wield a martini glass and deck a man who tries to make advances. Eileen, naturally, is transfixed, and in their first few brief conversations Rebecca seizes on the fact that beneath that meek exterior and squeaky voice (this time sporting a variable Boston accent), Eileen can drop some quiet barbs.
Eileen shaves her legs and dresses up to meet Rebecca for drinks, and she gamely tries to smoke when Rebecca lights up. “Sorry, I don’t usually smoke,” Eileen apologizes through a coughing fit.
“Nasty habit. That’s why I like it,” Rebecca says, reminding us that we’re pretty much in the world of noir now.
But this is noir with a twist, because the relationship between Eileen and Rebecca goes from adoration to flirtation. “You remind me of a girl in a Dutch painting,” Rebecca says. “You have a strong face. Plain but fascinating. I bet you have brilliant dreams.”
As an audience, we know that she does have vivid dreams, because we see them come to life every so often with a delicious shock. McKenzie suggests that Eileen is young woman with dark and unsettling depths, but the film simply drops hints until the two meet for a Christmas Eve dinner and everything changes with a single sentence.
It’d be a spoiler to say more, but “Eileen” embraces its heart of noir in the homestretch, giving McKenzie and Hathaway their share of big, bold moments and also giving Marin Ireland a showstopping sequence as a mother trying desperately to hide the darkest of secrets. It’s pulpy and provocative, and the remarkable thing about McKenzie’s performance is that even when she asserts herself, she does so without extraneous dialogue. Many of the strongest moments simply hold on her face for long stretches; not much happens, but everything happens.
Shot with a mean glow by Ari Wegner, “Eileen” isn’t concerned with delivering lessons about female empowerment. Oldroyd rather glories in dark, troubled and magnificently contradictory characters acting in gloriously twisted ways. Like the title character does in the film, the movie snuck up on the Sundance audience and gave it a swift kick.