Sundance Review: Female Friendship and Film Noir Combine in a Savage, Atmospheric Eileen

One of the higher-profile works at Sundance this year (at least in terms of star power) was director William Oldroyd’s (Lady Macbeth) noir-ish tale of a female friendship gone horribly wrong—Eileen, based on the book by Ottessa Moshfegh. The film centers on Thomasin McKenzie’s Eileen Dunlop, circa 1960s Boston, who works at the local prison as a record keeper during the day while tending to her alcoholic, emotionally damaged former cop father (Shea Whigham) at night. He’s nasty and cruel because he misses his late wife, and takes it out on his daughter, who lives with him. Her life seems grim, with no end to her suffering in sight.

But one day, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), a psychiatrist, joins the prison staff, and from Eileen’s perspective, she’s sophisticated, worldly, and kind, especially compared to the rest of the staff that seems to only tolerate Eileen. The two become friends, and Eileen sees this relationship as the end of her miserable life, perhaps without real cause. Rebecca becomes fixated on a young prisoner who shot his cop father for reasons that were never fully revealed in court, and she begins to suspect that the young man’s mother (Marin Ireland) may know more than she’s letting on about her son’s motives. Seemingly unrelated, Eileen and Rebecca head out to a bar one night, and it becomes clear that Eileen is falling in love, Rebecca might be doing the same, and that Eileen is unwisely putting all of her emotional eggs in this one basket.

But in a genuinely unexpected turn, Rebecca reveals that her investigation has escalated in shocking ways, and she involves Eileen in ways that break her heart but might still bring them closer. McKenzie’s portrayal of a desperate woman in need of saving is beyond effective, and Hathaway moves through this piece like she not only owns the place but that she also built it with her own two hands. Savage without being sleazy, Eileen is an exercise in gloomy atmosphere and misdirection, with a side of seduction—just not the kind Eileen was hoping for. I’m not sure I’m a total fan of the way the film simply ends, rather than wraps up, but by that point, I was fully hooked.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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