December 7, 2023
More than any year in recent memory, 2023 has been a time for the great debate of when a long movie becomes too long. With three-hour feats like Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Beau is Afraid taking up the big screen, runtimes and pacing have been common topics for dissection and discussion. On paper, Eileen should have nothing to do with those already mentioned on account of its 100-minute runtime and tiny cast. And yet, it feels even longer than those, seemingly a three-hour movie stuck in the body of a ninety-minute one.
Based on the 2015 crime novel of the same name, Eileen follows the titular character (Thomasin McKenzie) as she works at a juvenile detention center in 1960s Boston. She’s a quiet young woman who isn’t in love with her job (or much of anything for that matter), but it does provide an escape from her miserable home life where she takes care of her widowed, deadbeat alcoholic father (Shea Whigham). Her life becomes anything but quiet when she meets a new co-worker at the prison, Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the free-spirited doctor who takes Eileen under her wing. Things are good at first, flirty even. But the more time they spend together, the more Eileen becomes roped into something that Rebecca is hiding under the surface.
Again, on paper, that’s a simple synopsis I can enjoy rather quickly. The result ends up being the exact opposite, as everything that unfolds either feels out of place or is an attempt at a mind blowing plot twist. Take a scene where Eileen and Rebecca are approached by a couple of men while at a bar. Rebecca turns to Eileen and asks her if she wants to dance, calling Eileen by her name instead as an act of seeming playfulness. It’s a moment that doesn’t get brought up afterward, nor does the movie care to explain why this happened.
Pacing is another one of the biggest reasons Eileen doesn’t work. Scenes are rushed or cut down right as things are about to go somewhere, while others test patience. The first half hour features a moment when Eileen fantasizes an encounter with a young correctional officer. But right as the temperature starts to climb, it cuts to the next scene. Fast forward to the last half hour and you’ve got Eileen and Rebecca getting involved in a lethargically paced dark situation.
Although McKenzie and Hathaway are the prominent stars, their performances feel shallow. McKenzie, in particular, has left me confused these past few years. She’s previously given standout performances, most notably in 2019’s Jojo Rabbit and 2021’s Last Night in Soho. At the same time, there’s stuff like M. Night Shyamalan’s Old, where she’s out of place with her American accent and line deliveries that seem to come off of a cue card. Eileen falls similarly to Old, leaving her unable to adapt to the environment while donning an unconvincing Boston accent. Hathaway isn’t unlocking anything new or exciting, with Rebecca feeling somewhat familiar to her previous showy roles. It’s a shame that her and McKenzie do have chemistry and play it up, yet it’s never satisfyingly explored beyond the titillating surface. The same treatment goes to Whigham, who’s character’s inherent complexity from alcoholism and dejection is reduced to just a string of drunken mumbles.
Adding insult to injury for these dull characters is dull visuals. Ari Wegner’s cinematography displays poor lighting and uninspired camera, with the kaleidoscopic shots prominently sold in the trailer left either underutilized to the point of total absence. Also featured is a weighted score by Richard Reed Parry, most notably known as a core member of Arcade Fire. There’s a tonal imbalance between gritty noir and modern thriller, something reflected in director William Oldroyd’s handling of the material.
With its bothersome pacing and unfulfilling performances from its talented cast, Eileen is undoubtedly one of the worst of the year. I don’t think McKenzie or Hathaway have been in a movie as bad as this, one that has its sights set on undermining their talent at every turn until they have nothing left. That’s all Eileen really is: a whole lot of nothing.