Eileen could not be more of a cross between the midcentury noir of Patricia Highsmith and Jim Thompson if Carol had conceived a child with The Killer Inside Me. Commuting its way around wintry Boston in the 1960s, this teasing, wrong-footing semi-thriller, adapted from Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 mystery novel, inches towards the crux of a crime, and then leaves the ramifications dangling.
As in Carol, we’re drawn in with the lure of a lesbian love affair, between a brunette prison lackey named Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, with her eerily timeless face) and an older blonde woman with a grandstanding air – a Harvard-educated doctor, Rebecca, who’s a posh fish out of water in this grimy suburban penitentiary.
Played in scratchy skirt suits by Anne Hathaway, under a curvy blonde wig, this newcomer’s veneer of class is intoxicating to young Eileen, who lives miserably at home under the eye of her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), an embittered ex-cop who taunts her about getting nowhere with her life.
This is William Oldroyd’s second directing job after the terrific Lady Macbeth (2016), which starred a sizzling Florence Pugh in her first lead role, and crackled with near-feral sexual tension. That component is only halfway present here, despite Eileen’s fantasies in all directions – she’s equally likely to daydream about lustful attention from one of the prison guards (an underused Owen Teague) or imagine blowing her dad’s head off with his service revolver.
The film is all feints for an hour – elegant feints, but far from kick-starting the dramatic motor, they have a habit of stalling it. Many may struggle, too, to crack past Hathaway’s self-regarding front and find an actual person: while it’s impossible not to be reminded of Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird, my mind strayed once or twice to Kate McKinnon’s priceless Saturday Night Live parody of the same character.
McKenzie, at all times, is the one holding it together. Aptly described as “plain but fascinating” by the script, and with a “beautiful turbulence” about her features, she’s arresting even in total repose. It’s striking how almost all the film’s most memorable images capture her in close-up – whether she’s visible, slumped, through the upper curve of a turquoise steering wheel, or tries to slide Rebecca’s bathroom mirror open to have a nosy peek at the bottles behind.
One portrait of her waiting at a window, while the score hushes to nil and a corpse-disposal plan goes wrong, has a perfect Edward Hopper-ish aura of apprehension, not least thanks to the inspired lighting of Ari Wegner (The Power of the Dog), whose alluringly frosty work is a major asset throughout.
It’s frustrating, then, to watch a faintly sagging tale snap to attention and then promptly abandon us at the very moment it gets most interesting. Full marks for the evocative last shot, and for Marin Ireland’s livid supporting turn as a police widow with secrets. But Oldroyd – along with Moshfegh, who co-adapted her own book – ducks out just when you want them to double down.