You’ve seen something like Eileen before. Hell, you’ve likely seen it at a prior installment of the Sundance Film Festival. Two different women finding a kindred spirit in each other? Yeah, that’s been done. So, what sets a movie like this apart is in the details, as well as the performances. This one certainly has the acting, though the details? Yeah, that’s another story. It makes for another Sundance effort this year that’s worth seeing, but has a third act that boggles your mind.
Eileen ends up going to a place that really doesn’t work, but the first section of the film is actually quite interesting. Just seeing the title character in her own unusual nature is more than enough. The narrative choices come off as unnecessary, but more on that later. Mostly, you’re here to see two women at the tops of their respective games.
Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) is a bit of an odd woman. Not only does she work at a prison, seemingly immune to the horrors of the job, she’s aloof, shy, and struggles with connections. Her home life is rough, with a retired cop father (Shea Whigham) who mostly just complains about her. Then, the arrival of the new prison counselor changes things. Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway) adds someone she’s not just interested in, but utterly fascinated by. Rebecca sees Eileen as a friend, which is something new for her, so she’s more than appreciative.
In short order, Eileen is floating on air. Sure, home is still rough and work sucks, but Rebecca is here. As Eileen and Rebecca grow closer, the former starts to dream of what this might mean. Then, the latter drops a bombshell on her. Will their bond be strained by what Rebecca is asking Eileen to do? Or, is she all in?
The duo of Anne Hathaway and especially Thomasin McKenzie are doing very solid work. Hathaway is in somewhat of a similar key to what she did in Armageddon Time, which I mean as a compliment. She’s vibrant and impactful with her performance. McKenzie is best in show, delivering her best performance since Leave No Trace. You buy her in her sadder moments as much as in her weirder ones. In addition to a brooding Shea Whigham, the supporting cast includes Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Sam Nivola, Owen Teague, and more.
Director William Oldroyd and writer Luke Goebel hamstring themselves with a particular narrative choice, but when we’re just observing Eileen, the movie is on safe ground. The novel that the flick is based on may have boxed them in somewhat, but they don’t find a way around that. They have Hathaway and McKenzie, as well as some interesting visuals from Oldroyd, so it’s enough, but there’s definitely a sense that there should have been more here.
Eileen falls apart in the back end (though not like Cat Person, which is a better movie until it becomes an even more puzzling one), but until that part, it’s a compelling character study. Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie breathe enough life into their roles to make the bumpy last section just disappointing, as opposed to crippling. With a better ending, this would have been one of the better Sundance titles this year. Instead, it’s simply more middle of the road.