In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel of the same name, the woman with a morbidly empty existence and a miserable relationship with her life is vocal about the gory bits of it all. The same Eileen is more of an enigma in the 2023 movie adaptation by William Oldroyd, where the layers of her insipid lifestyle are ruffled by her effervescent desires to break free. Thomasin McKenzie’s lead in Eileen seems to have internalized the quiet chaos that’d brew within someone like Eileen, only to explode when touched by Anne Hathaway’s glamorous Rebecca.
What Happens In The Film?
1960s Massachusetts was neither the right time nor the right place for Eileen. For someone with the kind of instinctive imagination that’d shock even those with a strong stomach, 24-year-old Eileen simply didn’t belong in the kind of job that she had and didn’t deserve to come back to the desolate space she called home. Not much happened around Eileen, and even less was going on in her life as the daughter and sole caregiver of a depressed, alcoholic ex-cop and as an employee at the juvenile correctional center. Eileen was practically invisible, so much so that no one would bat an eye when she’d press a handful of dirty ice between her legs to ease her arousal at the sight of a couple fooling around. Much less intimate with the grossness that’d become a defining quality of the book’s protagonist, our heroine still did find her real expression when doing or being around something you’d deem disgusting. But that’s only because she’d never seen anything that’d made her feel alive, at the very least. Whether you’d see it as a lucky break for Eileen or an event that’d only enliven her sociopathic tendencies, things do shift dramatically when a gorgeous Rebecca joins the facility as the new psychiatrist.
What Was Eileen’s Relationship Like With Her Father?
The state of her cluttered home, deprived of light and any sign of anything joyful, tells us a lot about the kind of life Eileen would have there. We hardly know anything about how it was for her when her mother was still alive and her sister hadn’t gotten married yet. But the departure of those two must’ve only added to Eileen’s misery, as she was now the only one at the receiving end of her father’s emotional abuse. Come to think of it, the only time her drunkard father said anything nice to her was in the form of a backhanded compliment about her finally attaining some interesting qualities. For the most part, he was the kind of man who’d exploit all the labor and care she’d provide while simultaneously destroying her with his foul words. It wasn’t that Eileen didn’t fight back, but what’d anyone achieve by trying to reason with a man who held his gun up to the kids returning home from school? Eileen’s father was paranoid, grief-stricken, and a raging alcoholic. But the worst thing about him was the fact that he represented everything that was holding Eileen back from actually feeling like a grown adult with desires, dreams, and a life of her own.
How Did Rebecca’s Arrival Change Things Up For Eileen?
Rebecca’s arrival didn’t just impact Eileen; it also made the picture of how a 1960s juvenile detention facility ran rather clear. Riddled with nasty prejudices against women, the prison management seldom gave Rebecca the opportunity to have a say in important matters. But the dysfunction of the prison was where Eileen felt the most at ease. The corner of her eye kept a check on Lee Polk, the local kid who’d butchered his father in his sleep, as she endlessly exploited the blessing that was her metabolism and poured a truckload of sugar into her coffee mug. It might’ve been the insane mismanagement and rather lackadaisical approach to security that’d allowed Eileen to let her imagination run wild and please herself with the fantasies about a prison guard—yet another moment Eileen is true to the novel and its titular character’s sporadic acts of defiance. Rebecca stood in stark contrast to everything Eileen abhors about herself and her life. Every time she was around Rebecca, Eileen was more fascinated by the gorgeous blond hair and the sleek, stylish clothes than she was insecure about her own lack of flair. Rebecca’s society-defying independent mindset was a breath of fresh air in Eileen’s stagnant life. Not to mention, Rebecca was the only one who’d ever shown a genuine interest in befriending Eileen. The first time she’d dolled up in a while was to impress Rebecca when she’d met her at the bar. Yet it was Eileen who came home enamored, even though waking up in a pool of her own vomit must not have been very dreamy. It was no surprise that a girl with a lot of rage buried inside would be smitten by a woman who’d punch a guy at the bar. And the kiss Rebecca planted on the nervous Eileen’s face only made the latter grow even more obsessed with the ethereal woman who’d shown up in her life like a blessing.
Where Is Eileen Headed?
There is no point in Eileen where the film’s trying to communicate just one thing. Eileen’s sexual awe coincides with the point at which the film starts to make rather audacious comments about parental abuse and its alarming manifestations. And how her eyes light up every time Rebecca’s razor-sharp intellect takes the driver’s seat is accompanied by the real and rather depressed state of correction at a correctional facility. Eileen’s never thought to make an identity for herself. She’s so secure in her comfortable invisibility that she’s never even bought clothes of her own. Or perhaps it’s never being seen by her family that’s made her the way she is. Her comfort around Rebecca is the only reason she’d rather just get more cozy with her present personality than try to be anything different.
Eileen never really speaks up about Eileen’s growing feelings for Rebecca. But at no point does it leave you in a fog. At every juncture, you’re certain that Eileen’s head-over-heels obsessed with Rebecca. So much so that her focus shifts from Lee Polk. When Rebecca calls in Rita, Lee’s mom, and the supposedly grieving widow of a dead cop, all Eileen wants is a glance at Rebecca in all her glory. So you can imagine how thrilled she’d be when she’s Rebecca’s choice of company for Christmas Eve. She’s just gotten a sense of relief from her volatile father’s losing custody of his precious gun. Who knows what Eileen had in mind when she set off in her smoke-filled car and headed to the address that she thought belonged to Rebecca?
It was the Polks’ home that Eileen was invited to. I guess that much was certain when she mistakenly opened a door to what looked like a room with creepy drawings on the wall. But Rebecca did take her sweet time before breaking the daunting news to her. Was she leading on the girl with hardly any worldly exposure all along? That is, however, hardly as significant as the reason she’d brought her to the site of the gruesome murder, although it does answer the question in a concomitant manner. Rebecca might’ve always seen a friend in Eileen, and her New York sexual freedom might’ve blinded her to the fact that a kiss would mean something to someone like Eileen.
Things had escalated. Rita Polk, for the alleged crime of encouraging her own son’s sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, was now tied up and drugged in her own basement. It wasn’t just because Eileen was her only friend that Rebecca turned to her with an unreasonable demand. Sure, she was in trouble, but being a psychiatrist, she’d also recognized Eileen’s dark inclinations. It takes the fear of a gun-wielding Eileen for Rita to break down, scarily devoid of shame and chock full of disturbing justifications, and confess to the unimaginable crime. If you’ve paid close attention to Eileen’s intrusive daydreams, you’ve noticed that her mind often takes a violent route to relieve itself of the pent-up pain and rage. Her pulling the trigger on Rita links straight back to how intimate she’s always been with the idea of killing an abusive parent. But the way she’s ready with the plan of pinning the murder of a still-breathing person on her father can only mean that her raging hatred toward him has much more depth than we’ve been shown.
It was always going to be just Eileen. Even if Rebecca was romantically interested in her, Eileen would’ve never been more than a fleeting fling for her. So it’s really no surprise that the shocked and shaken Rebecca leaves Eileen high and dry and skips showing up at her house to tie it all up. But the sociopathic impulse that Rebecca and the horrific turn of events had ignited in her wasn’t so weak that it’d die out in Rebecca’s absence. Eileen committed murder—an asphyxiation someone like her might’ve pictured herself dying of. It must’ve been liberating for Eileen to replace an extremely self-destructive impulse with a lesser one. In the ending sequence, the smile on her face as she hitchhikes her way to New York can have many interpretations. Maybe she’s delusional enough to believe that Rebecca will be waiting for her at the Big Apple. Or maybe she’s just relieved that she’s gotten a kickstart, however morbid it might’ve been. New York City is everything that smalltown Massachusetts isn’t. And a life away from her father can only be an improvement.