Eileen is the definition of atmospheric: a pulpy queer noir thriller, underscored by the aesthetic of a bleak northeastern winter and a time period that makes you want to order a classic cocktail while smoking a cigarette. Director William Oldroyd wastes no time drawing you into the world, either. Even the stylized font in the opening credits instantly transports you. The result is a film that’s a little Carol, a little One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a little like Hitchcock penning gothic literature.

Set during a bitter 1964 Massachusetts winter, Eileen follows a young secretary (Thomasin McKenzie) who becomes enchanted by the glamorous new counselor (Anne Hathaway) at the prison where she works. Their budding friendship takes a twisted turn when Rebecca reveals a dark secret — throwing Eileen onto a sinister path. 

Eileen comes from director Oldroyd and writers Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, based on Moshfegh’s novel of the same name. In addition to McKenzie and Hathaway, the film also stars Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland, and Owen Teague.

Perfect Casting Easily Draws You Into ‘Eileen’

To put it mildly, Eileen’s life isn’t going great. She’s living with her alcoholic father, whose brief moments of lucidity either involve waving a gun around and threatening the neighbors, or reminding Eileen that he considers her boring at best, a disappointment at worst. Eileen’s only escape from home is her work in a literal prison — a dead-end job where the most exciting thing that happens is her intrusive fantasies about hooking up with a guard or an inmate. (That, and her morbid visions about turning her father’s gun on him or herself, ending things one way or another.) Eileen’s circumstances make her a simmering cocktail of ennui and repressed desires, just waiting for a reason to boil over. She soon finds that reason in Rebecca.

In contrast to the downtrodden and depressed Eileen, Hathaway’s Rebecca seems to have it all. She’s glamorous, sophisticated, intelligent, charming, and clearly has her own agenda — a classic femme fatale. Above all else, she’s in control of her life in the way Eileen desperately longs to be. At work, Rebecca undercuts the misogyny of her peers, bends the rules to benefit her patients (or perhaps just because she can), and generally commands any room she walks into. Outside the prison, she’s just as self-assured; unapologetic and unselfconscious as she drinks too much, punches a guy who gets too handsy at the bar, and pulls Eileen closer to dance.

McKenzie delivers a standout performance as Eileen. Much like her appearance in 2021’s Last Night in Soho, McKenzie once again proves she can take mousy, unconfident, and reserved characters and build out their journey into someone assured and able to own their own power. And of course, she looks at Hathaway’s Rebecca like she wants to worship at her altar (in more ways than one). The film hinges on buying into Eileen’s fascination and infatuation with Rebecca, and McKenzie absolutely sells that. McKenzie also has a way of making Eileen someone we empathize with, even in her darkest moments. We want Eileen to escape her situation, no matter the cost — and if she can get Rebecca along the way, all the better.

Hathaway’s performance also elevates Rebecca, a character who could easily come across as overly-haughty or manipulative in the wrong hands. But she adds just the right amount of chemistry and compassion to Rebecca’s interactions with Eileen. You believe she really does like Eileen, which only ups the stakes as the story progresses.

A Compelling Journey, If The Destination Leaves Something To Be Desired

As the women circle each other, Eileen offers up an intoxicating blend of obsession and desire, all tied up in themes of free will, agency, and navigating moral gray areas. The film draws you in with its characters and its will-they-won’t-they tension, and keeps your attention with the constant promise of danger and destruction lingering just on the horizon. Eileen is a powder keg and Rebecca is the spark — but figuring out how they’ll come together and what the fallout will be proves quite the ride.

Like all the best thrillers, Eileen manages to throw a solid number of twists, turns, and surprises our way. (A line delivered by Hathaway at the film’s climax made me gasp out loud.) The film knows the noir tropes of its roots, and balances playing them up and subverting them to put a unique twist on the story. In some ways, Eileen is just what you expect. In others, it diverts to a different path. I felt drawn up and taken along for a ride with this one, and I loved that it kept me guessing what would happen next.

Unfortunately, this is a film that doesn’t quite stick the landing for me. While I appreciated that the final scenes subverted some of my expectations, ultimately the ending came across as a bit rushed and unearned, particularly with Eileen’s characterization. I rarely say I wish movies ran longer, but Eileen could have benefited from another ten or fifteen minutes, just to help adequately lay the foundation for its conclusion. This is the kind of film where the thrills and excitement come from the joys of the chase, the intrigue of the unknown, balancing on the razor’s edge. After the cards are on the table and the path forward is decided, it becomes a little less compelling. Still, though I wanted more from the destination, Eileen delivered quite the journey along the way.

Eileen premieres in theaters December 1.