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Eileen Review: Psychological Drama That Comes Up Short

  • Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie light up the screen
  • Moody, atmospheric Boston setting
  • Short runtime doesn't give us enough time with the characters to build depth

"Eileen" is a melancholy, atmospheric psychological drama that features Boston at its darkest and most frigid. Based on a novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, William Oldroyd's period thriller explores the strange developments of a relationship between two working women, one a confident academic, and the other a meek administrative assistant. With powerhouse performances from two actresses who seem utterly in their element exploring the psychosexual dynamics of their friendship, "Eileen," which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, thrills even as it suffers from a runtime that doesn't allow adequate time to delve deeper.

Eileen herself (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is a young woman who has resigned herself to a dull, depressing, colorless life, her only outlet is the brief fantasies she indulges in from time to time. She serves as a reluctant caretaker for her cruel, alcoholic father, a man who delights in reminding her of all the reasons why she's never made anything out of her life. She works as a secretary at a local juvenile detention center, facilitating the visits between the youthful offenders and their families. Eileen flits from one dismal environment to another, and the bleak Massachusetts winter seems omnipresent in her life.

That is, until the effervescent Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) turns up as the new prison psychiatrist, a force of nature that upends Eileen's entire world. The vibrant woman possesses all the confidence and independence that Eileen longs for in her own life, and to Eileen's pure delight, she shows an interest in her. She sees something worthy of attention in the younger girl who has been downtrodden for so long, and the two develop a fast rapport. They go out for a drink, Eileen plays dress up in her late mother's clothes, and their relationship deepens.

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Psychological thrills

At its heart, "Eileen" has the potential to be a thoroughly compelling psychosexual thriller. Anne Hathaway is in her element, having hit a point in her career where it feels like directors finally understand how to utilize her properly. She was fine as an innocent little ingenue, but it's clear from films like "Eileen" that she was born to play the brassy, bold woman in her sexual prime. Thomasin McKenzie, quickly developing a reputation for taking on psychologically complex roles, doesn't shy away from the darker elements of her character, never afraid to make her interpretation of Eileen cold and unlikeable just as much as she desires for freedom. Both of these characters are fascinating, and it's their unconventional relationship with one another that provides "Eileen" with so much of its unique energy.

But as enjoyable as it is to watch Hathaway and McKenzie square up against one another, there's one major flaw that impacts the effectiveness of "Eileen," and it's a surprising one. Normally, if there's a complaint about the length of a film, it's because it runs too long. "They should have shaved off 15 or 20 minutes," audiences grumble as they check their watch and shift uncomfortably in their sit around the two-and-a-half-hour mark. It's so much easier to spot a film that starts to drag — we can feel it in our bones. But "Eileen" actually has the opposite problem: At a mere 96 minutes long, it probably could have comfortably added a full half hour to its runtime, and the film would have benefited from it. The relationship between Eileen and Rebecca is interesting, but it feels like it's barely had a chance to develop by the time the film is hitting its climax.

Just a few more minutes

A good psychosexual thriller needs time to simmer so that there's a sense of depth to the emotionally complex interactions between the lead characters. "Eileen" just doesn't have the time to accomplish any of this. McKenzie and Hathaway have such great chemistry with one another, but their connection builds after only a couple of scenes, making it less impactful and the payoff of the film less satisfying than it could have been if there was more time devoted to it. Along similar lines, there's a fascinating subplot with Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), a young prisoner who murdered his father and now refuses to speak, but it too fails to get the space it deserves. Nivola does an excellent job with what he has, and Marin Ireland shines in her brief role as his mother, but you have to wonder what could have been if this storyline in particular were allowed to breathe. And Owen Teague, a rising star who was seen last year opposite Andrea Riseborough in "To Leslie," has about 30 seconds of screentime, enough to make you question exactly how much of this film ended up on the cutting room floor.

There are so many amazing components of "Eileen." The working-class neighborhood in 1960s Boston has a lived-in, hardscrabble atmosphere, as cold and brutal as the New England winter. Each of the lead performances is nuanced, their interpersonal relationships crackling with energy. If nothing else, it's noteworthy for the commanding turns from Hathaway and McKenzie, both of whom are at the top of their game. But it also feels heavy with lost potential, the psychological stones it leaves unturned as it rushes through a narrative that seems as though it would have been better served by taking its time. "Eileen" is perhaps a mere 15 minutes away from greatness — a small thing, perhaps, but the valuable time that could have been dedicated to adding flavor and depth to the central relationship that everything else hinges on.

Theatrical release information for "Eileen" has yet to be announced.