Early on in the new thriller Eileen, we’re tipped off to the fact that something about the title character may be a little off. Played with tremulous longing by Thomasin McKenzie, Eileen creeps on a couple making out in a cliffside car and does little to resist sexual urges for guards at the corrections facility where she works. Anything to get away from the cruddy reality of her Massachusetts life in winter, bogged down by the obligations to look after her alcoholic father Jim (Shea Whigham) and to put up with the hectoring of her co-workers. Then comes Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new prison psychologist whose platinum blonde hair shines like a beacon in Eileen’s bleak existence. The two share cigarettes and conversation at work and soon become friends outside work as well but something darker lurks below their burgeoning relationship.

Based on the acclaimed 2015 novel of the same name, Eileen is an intoxicating film noir that oozes with both sumptuous style and pernicious undercurrents. Though the film takes place in the 1960s, it more closely resembles Technicolor white-knucklers of the 1950s like Niagara and Dial M For Murder in terms of narrative inertia and intent. The title card sets the mood brilliantly: a static shot of Eileen’s dashboard as her crummy car slowly fills with exhaust, with Richard Reed Parry’s music score emulating urgent Bernard Herrmann-style strings underneath. Director William Oldroyd lays out the plight of Eileen’s daily life so thoroughly in the opening scenes that when Rebecca shows up that one fateful day at Moorehead prison, we’re as lured in by her beguiling opulence as Eileen is.

Though she’s performed variations on the femme fatale role in The Dark Knight Rises and Serenity, Hathaway in Eileen is playing a more archetypical seductress like that ones that screen legends Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner perfected in the 1940s. Marked by worldly candor and breathy beauty, her Rebecca has an agenda that isn’t much more obvious to us in the audience than it is for Eileen on-screen but it’s alluring either way. While Hathaway plays all the right notes of mystery and eroticism in her performance, her Massachusetts accent too often falls prey to Transatlantic and British dialectical detours. It’s an aspect of the film that’s a bit hard to shake off, since her character is meant to be casting a spell and the wrong-sounding word or phrase can quickly shatter the illusion.

McKenzie, on the other hand, gives the more accomplished performance overall and, specifically, weaves together a linguistic timbre that is absolutely authentic from start to finish. Whether her character is murmuring words under her breath or shouting obscenities, her articulations and non-rhoticity remain consistent. You would never know that McKenzie’s native accent is New Zealand, given that she pulls off various dialects so convincingly; she’s done Cornish in The King, “standard American” in Leave No Trace and German in Jojo Rabbit. She also does a British variation in Last Night In Soho, another film about a mousy introvert who gets taken in by a blonde beauty. She’s only 23 but given what McKenzie has shown us so far, her acting talents will continue to astonish for years to come.

If Eileen falters for some, it’ll be with its audacious third act, which pushes the storyline into even psychologically darker territory than the film noir genre tends to go. It’s not the most tactful of shifts from Oldroyd but the husband and wife screenwriting duo of Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, the latter of whom wrote the book upon which the movie is based, keep things from veering too off track. DP Ari Wegner also tinges the frame with an inviting warmth that’s a well-conceived foil to the grimy and cold street-level settings. Though there are narrative and performance elements that keep it from greatness, Eileen is a frosty-paned noir throwback that titillates at every turn.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Wonka, a fantasy musical starring Timothée Chalamet and Calah Lane detailing the origin story of chocolatier Willy Wonka as he dreams of opening a shop in a city renowned for its sweet confections.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Finestkind, a crime thriller starring Ben Foster and Jenna Ortega following two estranged brothers as they hatch a deal with a Boston crime syndicate, with unexpected consequences for the pair as well as their father.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is The Family Plan, an action comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Monaghan about a former top assassin living incognito as a suburban dad who must take his unsuspecting family on the run when his past catches up to him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup