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Courtesy of Sundance Institute

MOVIE REVIEW
Eileen (2023)

While the charming animated movie “Inside Out” made it plain that disgust is one of the core emotions necessary for our survival, it’s also the one people enjoy the least. Therefore a movie about disgust must find a way to portray disgusting things in such a way that audiences are not disgusted themselves. It’s a very, very fine line to walk, and therefore something of an achievement that “Eileen’s” director William Oldroyd does it so well, and no doubt why “Eileen” screened at the Sundance Film Festival. But the human instinct to sniff one’s fingers after masturbating is not to be encouraged.

It’s the 1960s and Eileen (Thomasin Mckenzie) lives in a small Massachusetts town with her awful father, Jim (Shea Whigham), the former police chief who has been drinking himself to death since Eileen’s mother died some years back. Since Eileen dropped out of college and returned home to nurse her mother, she has been frozen in place, going so far as to wear nothing but her mother’s clothes. She buys Jim’s alcohol and wearily tolerates his bile and bitterness, although every once in a while he’s lucid enough to be devastatingly observant, but no less cruel. She also spends her days working at the area’s juvenile prison for boys. She supervizes the visiting hours, does some typing, observes the inmates in the courtyard and in their cells, and is not very good at any part of her job, though because of her father it’s hers for life, if she wants it. It’s a grim existence; and Eileen does nothing to improve any aspect of it. She doesn’t clean the house, her car runs in a cloud of toxic smoke that she doesn’t fix, she barely washes herself and eats mostly candy (though the eating disorder which was a major plotline in the book, written by Ottessa Moshfegh, who cowrote the script with Luke Goebel, has mercifully been dropped here). She also spends a lot of time having vivid fantasies about something – anything – changing: shooting her father dead, shooting herself instead, fucking the repulsive prison guards up against the glass. These are shot by Ari Wegner in such as a way that the fantasy isn’t apparent; and the return to reality is a nasty jolt, every time.

It’s December and everything is brown and grey and covered with dirty snow. The prison doctor retires and is replaced by a glamorous woman named Rebecca (Anne Hathaway). She drives a red car and wears a red coat and is also a platinum blonde, in case we’d missed how otherwise she was a fresh splash of color. Eileen is entranced, which Rebecca is amused by; and they quickly strike up a friendship powered by awe on one side and manipulative boredom on the other. Ms. Mackenzie has significant previous experience in playing an unhappy young woman mesmerized by an enthralling blonde – “Last Night in Soho,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Leave No Trace” also hit this note on her resume – but here the parallels feel, by design, closer to “Carol.” However “Carol” was about two women coming together to stand against a cold world, while “Eileen” is about two cold women and whether they can thaw enough to stand together.

When Rebecca invites Eileen for a drink, Eileen takes such care in getting ready that it’s positively sensuous. In the bar it’s clear Rebecca has no idea Eileen has known literally everyone in the room for literally her entire life, and would hardly care if she did. The room watches, though; and the comments they make are for Eileen’s ears only. Rebecca fancies herself on vacation from her high-class reality, able to toy with the local yokels without consequence. Ms. Hathaway’s layered, unusually relaxed performance makes it clear Rebecca is so committed to the bit that when a gun is stuck in her face she doesn’t even flinch.

But then Rebecca catches Eileen snooping in the prison files. Eileen makes an unwise comment about something which is common knowledge in the town, but news to an outsider; and that prompts Rebecca to take a professional interest Eileen can’t do anything about. As a result the movie flips into such complete, catastrophic horror none of the previous filth and grime has prepared you for how low things go. It’s literally unspeakable, centered around a jaw-dropping performance by Marin Ireland as a prisoner’s mother that’s almost indescribable, both in the horror and in the normal tones in which the horror is said.

A lot of snobs like to talk about how the book is always better than the movie adapted from the book. Obviously this is untrue, but it’s worth considering why this is such a common idea. Books are able to provide a nuanced interiority about a person’s thoughts and perceptions, while movies can provide a nuanced exteriority – the location, the clothes, the weather, all showcased in a flash that on the page would take thousands of words to describe. And because movies are watched, not read, they are felt by audiences in a different way. The subject matter of “Eileen” the film is just as repulsive as the book, but it’s just digested, or not, in a different way. The pill is no less bitter, of course, for slipping down more easily. The sweaters Rebecca and Eileen wear provide a character study as nuanced as the knitwear in “Knives Out,” but Olga Mill’s incredible costume work here will get less attention because of the gloom of “Eileen’s” central idea: Other people’s misery is the best tool for escaping from your miserable life.

At best, this is unpleasant. At worst it’s an exploitative sightseeing tour of the pornographic suffering of children. Any achievement which makes onlookers hold their nose it is a difficult one. But to talk about “Eileen” feels like potty training. It’s necessary and ought to be done well, but the turds should be flushed away as quickly as possible. No amount of perfume will ever make them less gross.

Comments

Ms. Mackenzie has significant previous experience in playing an unhappy young woman mesmerized by an enthralling blonde – “Last Night in Soho,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Leave No Trace” also hit this note on her resume
Soho matches that description, but in Jojo Rabbit she's not really "enthralled" by Scarlett Johannson so much as stuck in her house. And for Leave No Trace I couldn't begin to guess what "enthralling blonde" you're referring to.

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