A psychopath watching William Oldroyd’s deliciously twisted “Eileen,” based on the book by Otessa Moshfegh, can only see an uplifting story of personal redemption. After all, Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) goes from a naïve, repressed compulsive masturbator — we see her secretly rubbing herself under her tweed skirt on two separate occasions in the first few minutes — to an independent young woman faced with decisive action and agency, a fur coat her future. Top with lipstick smile. Non-psychora, however, is destined for a more complex range of reactions to Oldroyd’s shameless genre-bender: some combination of alarm, amusement, annoyance, surprise and panicked, possibly inappropriate laughter. It may prove an off-putting cocktail in some quarters, but the geeks among us will find the sheer chutzpah of “Eileen,” classy, clever filmmaking, curiously exhilarating and addictive.
Speaking of addicts, Eileen’s father (the usually excellent Shea Whigham) may be an unrepentant alcoholic ex-cop who sits in an upstairs window pointing a gun at the neighborhood kids on the way home from school, but he has his moments. At such a time, with the relative clarity of a career drunk only on the first whiskey of the day, he provides a possible key to navigating the film’s narrative chicanes. Just like in the movies, he thinks, there are two kinds of people in the world: “those who move, what you see” and “those who just fill space.”
Her daughter, she claims, is one of the latter, with their casual cruelty, even in their most tender encounters. But what happens when a lifelong space-filler, whom no one has ever paid much attention to, and whose eccentricities have thus been nurtured into full-blown perversity, suddenly decides to become a rice-maker without much notice? Perhaps “Eileen” is what happens when a neglected background excess throws itself into a spotlight role in its own life.
Such a dramatic transformation needs a catalyst. For Eileen, the sly, socially withdrawn, rather anti-health secretary with a boy’s regret in ’60s Massachusetts, it comes in the form of the Marilyn-esque “Dr. Miss Rebecca St. John” (Anne Hathaway), the facility’s impossibly glamorous new jailer. Psychologist. With her clicking heels, slim cigarette, and a perfect blonde scoop of her hair, Rebecca is as exotic as a bird of paradise in Eileen’s dirty surroundings. And when she agrees to befriend Eileen, the effect is immediate: Eileen starts washing more regularly and make- Starting to dress up, she ditches her shapeless beige dresses for pretty dresses and powder-pink outerwear she’s collected from her dead mother’s closet. “You’re different these days,” her father observes ruefully. “Almost attractive.”
The parallels to Todd Haynes’ “Carol” are so obvious they’re almost self-aware — but if the films have similarities such as the December-centered story of lesbian attraction that develops between a withdrawn younger brunette and an earthy older blonde, Oldroyd instead has the velvety warmth of Haynes’s movie. With a gritty, tawdry, chilly edge, present in everything from the production design to Ari Wagner’s exquisitely careful camerawork. Here, a New England winter isn’t something to observe through a cozy fireside picture window over Cocoa, but an icy, treacherous thing — especially if you need to drive with the windows down, as your ancient rattling fills the car. If you don’t, smoke. From the beginning, long before the relationship plunges into its early growing emotional and moral, if this is “Carol,” it’s a cursed, stifled version of it.
Under the skittish brushed cymbals of Richard Reed Parry’s brilliant jazz score, which manages to be both uncomfortable and impatient as it moves from discordant passages to sweetly melodic resolve, Rebecca begins to take a special interest in one of the condemned prisoners. Leo Polk (Sam Nivola) is doing time for stabbing his father to death one night while lying in bed next to his mother (Marin Ireland, whose shattering monologue here gives him his second outstanding Sundance moment this year, after “Birth/Rebirth”). Eileen fascinates the boy as well, her crimes seeming to fuel his own parricide fantasy as if they were really happening.
Rebecca’s investigation into Polk’s case takes a sinister and frankly unprofessional turn, and she calls on Eileen to help, knowing that the little thing she befriended is hardly the innocent, flexible tool she assumed him to be. Part of the thrill of “Eileen” is the black comedy shift in the balance of power between the two women, as wonderfully played by Hathaway and McKenzie, both turning in career-high performances.
Eileen, initially thrust into the limelight by Rebecca’s flattering attentions, soon begins to replace the shiny object of her fixation — love isn’t quite the right word — as the film’s center of gravity. Surely he can surpass Rebecca in terms of twisted psychology, and perhaps it is Rebecca’s presence for all the little patronizing comments, and her unquestioning belief in her own magnetism, that will shrink as Eileen’s expands. By the end, it’s almost as if Rebecca is aware that she is, for the first time, a placeholder in a film that bears someone else’s name.
The moviemaking term is apt, as this is a film that’s practically drunk on cinematic possibilities, pumping a reckless modern energy through an excess of classical Hollywood genres. Although adapted from the novel by co-writer Luke Goebel (they previously collaborated on the more straightforward Jennifer Lawrence drama “Causeway”), far from looking to its literary roots, “Eileen” is seductively film-literate. . It moves, sometimes dispassionately, sometimes with sudden abruptness, from Sirkian romantic melodrama to film noir to black-comedy horror, coming to rest somewhere in the realm of one of Hitchcock’s thrillers. (It’s no coincidence that the wonderfully ominous opening credits to “Rear Windows” or Rebecca’s name and her blond persona are also nods to the master of suspense.)
The formal rigor that made Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” such a compelling debut is in evidence throughout, but this time that directorial finesse is applied to the description of a bold, even reckless ambition, which “Eileen” hides, with her unbroken heart, a restrained , beneath the calm exterior. In this way, it’s like its fantastically quirky heroine. It’s always the cool ones.