A psychopath watching William Oldroyd’s deliciously deranged “Eileen,” based on the book by Ottessa Moshfegh, might simply see in it an uplifting tale of personal liberation. After all, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) goes from being a dowdy, downtrodden compulsive masturbator — we watch her rub herself surreptitiously under her tweed skirt on two separate occasions in the first few minutes — to an independent young woman of decisive action and agency, facing her future in a fur coat topped with a lipstick smile. Non-psychos, however, are destined to have a more complex range of reactions to Oldroyd’s brazen genre-bender: some combination of alarm, amusement, disgust, surprise and horrified, possibly inappropriate laughter. It might prove an off-putting cocktail in some quarters, but the weirdos among us will find “Eileen’s” sheer chutzpah, couched as it is in classy, clever filmmaking, curiously exhilarating and addictive.
Speaking of addicts, Eileen’s father (a typically excellent Shea Whigham) may be an unrepentantly alcoholic former cop, prone to sitting at an upstairs window boozily pointing his gun at neighborhood kids on their way home from school, but he has his moments. During one such, with the relative clarity of the career drinker only on his first whisky of the day, he provides one possible key to navigating the film’s narrative chicanes. Just like in the movies, he opines, there are two types of people in the world: “the ones making moves, the ones you watch” and “the ones just filling space.”
His daughter, he asserts, with a casual cruelty typical of even their tenderest encounters, is one of the latter. But what about when a lifelong space-filler, to whom no one has ever paid much attention, and whose eccentricities have thus been nourished into full-blown perversions without anyone much noticing, suddenly decides to become a move-maker? Perhaps “Eileen” is what happens when a disregarded background extra thrusts herself into the spotlight role in her own life.
Such a dramatic transformation needs a catalyst. For Eileen, the sly, socially withdrawn, rather hygiene-averse secretary at a boy’s penitentiary in ’60s Massachussetts, it arrives in the Marilyn-esque shape of “Dr. Miss Rebecca St. John” (Anne Hathaway), the facility’s improbably glamorous new prison psychologist. With her clicking heels, slim cigarettes and her hair a perfect scoop of blonde, Rebecca is as exotic in Eileen’s drab environment as a bird of paradise. And when she condescends to befriend Eileen, the effect is immediate: Eileen starts to wash more regularly and to wear make-up, ditching her shapeless beige outfits for pretty dresses and powder-pink outerwear harvested from her dead mother’s closet. “You’re different these days,” observes her father rheumily. “Almost interesting.”
The parallels with Todd Haynes’ “Carol” are so obvious they are almost self-conscious — but if the films have their similarities as December-centric tales of lesbian attraction springing up between a withdrawn younger brunette and a worldly older blonde, Oldroyd replaces the velvety warmth of Haynes’ movie with a shabby, tawdry, chilly edge, present in everything from the production design to Ari Wegner’s magnificently watchful camerawork. Here, the New England winter is not something to be observed through a picture window from a cozy fireside over cocoa, but an icy, treacherous thing — especially if you need to drive through it with your windows down, because your ancient rattling car fills with smoke if you don’t. From the outset, long before the relationship takes the first of its spiraling plunges into psychological and ethical murk, if this is “Carol,” it’s a cursed, curdled version of it.
Under the skittish brushed cymbals of Richard Reed Parry’s superb jazz score, which manages to be both sultry and impatient as it moves from discordant passages to sweetly tuneful resolves, Rebecca starts to takes a special interest in one of the penitentiary’s inmates. Leo Polk (Sam Nivola) is doing time for stabbing his father to death one night as he lay in bed next to his mother (Marin Ireland, whose shattering monologue here gives her her second outstanding Sundance moment this year after “Birth/Rebirth”). Eileen is fascinated by the boy too, with his crime seemingly fuelling her own patricidal fantasies In direct contradiction of Rebecca’s airy assertion that Massachusetts is a place of “no fantasy, no imagination,” Eileen daydreams violently in shocking sequences that Oldroyd deliberately shoots and edits like they’re really happening.
Rebecca’s investigation into Polk’s case takes a sinister and frankly unprofessional turn, and she calls on Eileen to help her out, unaware that the mousy little thing she befriended is hardly the innocent, pliable tool she has presumed her to be. Part of the thrill of “Eileen” is the blackly comedic shift in the power balance between the two women, as exceptionally played by Hathaway and McKenzie, both turning in career-high performances.
Eileen, initially coaxed into the limelight by Rebecca’s flattering attention, comes into her own, and soon will start to replace even the dazzling object of her fixation — love is not quite the right word — as the center of the film’s gravity. Certainly she can outmatch Rebecca in terms of twisted psychology, and perhaps it is Rebecca’s comeuppance for all the little patronising comments, and her unquestioning faith in her own magnetism, that she will shrink as Eileen expands. By the end, it’s almost as though Rebecca is aware she is, for the first time, the space-filler in a film that bears someone else’s name.
The moviemaking terminology is apt, because this is a film that is practically drunk on the possibilities of cinema, pumping a recklessly modern energy through a plethora of classical Hollywood genres. Although adapted from the novel by the author herself along with co-writer Luke Goebel (they previously collaborated on the far more straightforward Jennifer Lawrence drama “Causeway”), far from being beholden to its literary roots, “Eileen” is deliriously movie-literate. It moves, sometimes sinuously, sometimes with lurching abruptness, from Sirkian romantic melodrama to film noir into black-comedy horror, coming to rest somewhere in the realms of one of the more effed-up Hitchcock thrillers. (No coincidence that the gorgeously sinister opening credits are a direct pastiche of “Rear Window’s” or that Rebecca’s name and her aloof blonde persona also nod to the Master of Suspense.)
The formal rigor that made Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” such a striking debut is in evidence here throughout, but this time that directorial precision is applied to a narrative of bold, even garish ambition, which “Eileen” conceals, along with its unhinged heart, beneath a controlled, placid exterior. In that way, it’s just like its fantastically weird heroine. It’s always the quiet ones.