In ‘Eileen,’ Anne Hathaway Is an Alluring Prison Shrink With a Dark Side

A small town in 1964 Massachusetts is the less-than-idyllic setting for “Eileen.” Director William Oldroyd’s adaption of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name starts off as a drama before it takes a sharp turn to become a psychological thriller. Thomasin McKenzie plays the title character, a 24-year-old secretary. Eileen looks about 15, and that combined with her quiet nature, is probably why she is mostly overlooked by those around her. It’s not that she is a doormat or a pushover, just someone people generally treat as inconsequential. One person who does take a liking to her is Dr. Rebecca St. John (Anne Hathaway), the sophisticated Harvard-educated psychologist who takes a job at the juvenile prison where Eileen works.

Before Rebecca, Eileen Dunlop’s life was pretty bleak. She dropped out of college to care for her sick mother, and now Mom is dead and Eileen is stuck living with her father, Jim (Shea Whigham), an alcoholic former police officer who often belittles her. There’s mention of a married sister, but she is nowhere to be found, so it is up to Eileen to do things like take custody of Jim’s gun after he is caught pointing it at school children. It is made clear early on that Eileen is sexually frustrated, and she has a tendency to get aroused at odd moments, such as when she is sitting in an interrogation room at work. The talented Owen Teague plays a hot security guard whom she fantasizes about, but his role is sadly little more than a cameo.

Enter Rebecca, and it is like a light is turns on for Eileen. One does not expect to find someone so glamorous in a prison setting, and the attraction seems to be mutual. Rebecca befriends Eileen, and the viewer is left to guess what her intentions are. Is she just a woman with an effusive personality who wants to take a shy, friendless young woman under her wing? Is she sexually attracted to Eileen? Is there something sinister going on? One thing is certain, and that is that Rebecca helps Eileen find some much-needed confidence. After a wild night at the only bar in town, it appears that the film could turn into “Carol,” but “Eileen” throws a curveball after Rebecca invites Eileen over to her place on Christmas Eve.

“Eileen” starts off as an intriguing, slow-burning drama with great performances, but loses the viewer in the third act before an abrupt ending. Rebecca becomes too invested in one of the juvenile detainees she treats, Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), who is locked up for killing his cop father. The whole town is shocked and confused by such a crime, but it is pretty obvious to the viewer why a teen might be pushed to commit patricide. Surprisingly, it is not that clear to Rebecca, despite her credentials. She becomes obsessed with getting to the bottom of the case, and most of her focus is on the miserable Mrs. Polk (Marin Ireland). This is where the story feels inauthentic, as one would expect a prison psychologist to have a stronger stomach and be more mentally-equipped to handle the grittier cases. 

At the end of the day, the film is called “Eileen,” and it is Eileen in whom the viewer is most invested. The focus stays on her through her highs and crushing lows, such as when she spends a night in her car sleeping in her own vomit. She certainly goes through a transformation, but the ending of the film is too rushed for the audience to decide if she has changed for better or worse.

Eileen” releases Dec. 1 in New York and Los Angeles, Dec. 8 in theaters nationwide.