Come On! — Eileen

William J Hammon
8 min readDec 10, 2023

I will fully concede that my headline joke is just about the most obvious one I’ve ever made. It was basically already written and stored in the back of my head from the moment I first saw the trailer about two months ago. I mean, with Eileen as the title, anyone born before 1990 would likely make the immediate association with Dexys Midnight Runners’ one hit.

That said, the usage is beyond apropos for this film, because those two words by themselves represent the spectrum of reactions I had while watching the flick. At first it was with a sarcastic tone, as we were introduced to our major players. Later, it was used internally with a degree of mental impatience, as the story takes quite a long time to get to the bloody point. Finally and most crucially, however, when the major turn of the plot does come, the phrase is 100% used with excitement and delight, more than making up for the annoyances of the earlier contexts.

Set in Massachusetts in the 1960s, Thomasin McKenzie (who has quickly become one of my favorite actresses) is our titular protagonist, an everyday girl in a close knit small town, working as a secretary at a local penitentiary for younger men (sort of like a middle ground between juvenile hall and a full on maximum security prison). Her life is ordinary, but you can tell she harbors desires for excitement, especially when she back talks her insulting supervisor (Siobhan Fallon Hogan) and fantasizes about rough sex with one of the guards, surreptitiously masturbating under the table while the families of inmates are on visitations. She’s also fascinated by one prisoner in particular, Lee Polk (Sam Nivola), who always occupies an obscured and isolated corner of the exercise yard and never says a word.

A lot of this is to distract herself from the various downsides of her existence. She drives around in an old car that has fallen into such disrepair that even in winter she must drive with the windows rolled down lest the interior fill with smoke, a clever visual metaphor for how her limited existence is choking the life out of her. Aside from that, with her mother dead and her older sister moving away and having a family of her own, it falls to Eileen to look after her father, Jim (Shea Whigham), a bigoted, alcoholic retired police chief who still tries to wield his power over both Eileen and the neighborhood at large. He’s bitter, abusive, and cruel, but does occasionally offer a pearl of wisdom filtered through his own misery. It’s easy to see why Eileen would be desperate for anything else as her norm, and why she often imagines killing either herself or Jim.

Her world changes with the arrival of Rebecca, played by Anne Hathaway. A much more polished, glamorous figure, Rebecca has recently earned her doctorate from Harvard and has come on as the new prison psychiatrist. With her cosmopolitan demeanor and her willingness to dish out as much as she takes from the sexist stuffed shirts working around her, Rebecca becomes an instant idol for Eileen, a physical representation of everything she wishes she could be.

This is where the sarcasm comes in for me, because I didn’t buy Hathaway for a second. You can tell her entire persona is an affectation, like she’s trying to be Katharine Hepburn 15 years after her prime. Her vocal patterns (having lived in New York and California and educated in Boston), are just shy of that raspy, patrician Connecticut voice that Hepburn made so famous. She puts on these airs and tries to create this bon vivant mystique that’s just so artificial, but we’re meant to take it at face value, and it’s just too absurd to work for me. The moment she walks in, dressed in light tones with what looks like a shock blonde wig in contrast to the drab patterns and brunette hair of everyone else, you can tell she’s designed to stick out much more than she’s meant to be an actual character. I know this film is based on a popular book, and maybe this is how Rebecca is in the source material. Frankly, I don’t care, because no matter how intriguing she may be on the page, for me it just didn’t translate to the screen.

This leads to the second usage of the phrase, because it’s clear that Eileen is infatuated with Rebecca from the instant they meet. The only ambiguity is whether the attraction is a physical and sexual one, or merely an imagined ideal that she represents for someone in Eileen’s situation. Either way, the moment we establish the dynamic, we basically just go in circles for the next hour. Eileen puts up with her dad’s bullshit (he’s given all the rope in the world to hang himself by the local authorities due to his previous position), there’s clearly some personal and professional interest that both Eileen and Rebecca have in Polk’s case, particularly after his mother (Marin Ireland) shows up for a visit and Lee still refuses to speak or make eye contact), Rebecca — seemingly aware of Eileen’s girl crush — toys with her a bit and even engages in some lipstick lesbianism to taunt some of the townies, and we repeat the cycle.

All of this monotony is broken up only by the dumbest of interludes — smoking. I mentioned this when I put the trailer into this month’s TFINYW column, but there have been a lot of prominent scenes of smoking in movies this year, to the point where I honestly wonder if the anti-tobacco standards of the film industry have been dropped altogether. It’s at its most absurd in this film, where we have scenes of Rebecca constantly lighting up, justified by the discount Oscar Wilde line of, “It’s a nasty habit, that’s why I like it,” Eileen taking it up purely out of hero worship, and an actual moment where the store clerk selling to Eileen injects his surely in no way bought and paid for opinion (sarcasm overload), “Cigarettes are great!” It’s one thing to be accurate to the time period, because a lot of people smoked back then, but this is just ridiculous, and all it does is leave us laughing ironically while we make finger motions in our seats for the story to get on with it already.

The only things that really sustain you for the first two acts are Whigham and McKenzie. They do tremendous work here. Whigham plays Jim as a completely irredeemable shitbag, but there’s just enough pathos to his character, just enough sadness and tragedy, to make him feel real. We’ve all encountered someone like him in our lives, whether it’s a relative, rowdy neighbor, or unpleasant acquaintance. We see how much he’s destroying himself, while also knowing there’s no way to truly help him unless he makes the conscious decision to change his ways. At one point he takes a nasty fall requiring a trip to the hospital, and as soon as he’s home he takes off all the bandages and goes right back to his bottle, the doctor having noted that quitting drinking might kill him, but continuing definitely will. He only sleeps in his recliner chair, probably doing a number on his back, because he can’t bring himself to lie in the bed he and his wife shared after her death. He’s a lost cause, but you can understand how he got so lost in the first place, and thus still feel sorry for him even though he’s a terrible person. That’s not an easy thing to get across in 20 minutes of screen time.

As for McKenzie, her range is just flawless. As weird as Eileen’s obsession with Rebecca may be, McKenzie sells every second of it. She’s mousy, but never meek, and isn’t afraid to call people out. When her boss gets on her case, derisively saying it must be her “time of the month,” she instantly retorts, “At least I have a time of the month,” ripping into Hogan’s age. Whether she’s dealing with her father, hanging out with Rebecca, or just getting through the slog of her existence, she carries on admirably, changing her demeanor and giving us some really animated facial expressions and body movements to supplement the tone of her line readings. When I first saw the trailer, I was concerned that a) Eileen’s attraction would go in an ill-advised Single White Female direction, and b) that McKenzie was going to start getting typecast in softspoken roles, especially after the masterful performance she turned in with Last Night in Soho. She alleviated all my doubts.

Once the third act gets going, however, things kick into overdrive. I won’t reveal the twist that sets the climax in motion, but it’s glorious, if somewhat predictable (I half-guessed it when Mrs. Polk first showed up). With a single, well-delivered sentence from Rebecca (by far the best moment in Hathaway’s overwrought performance), the situation is turned completely on its ear and things get way more sinister than expected. But more than that, the whole thing serves as Eileen’s moment of freedom, her agency solidified and all of her suffering justified while Rebecca’s façade finally collapses. There are a lot of great movies that can be ruined by a bad ending. This is one of the rare ones that starts off bad, but is completely redeemed by a stellar conclusion that had me pumping my fist and silently shouting, “COME ON!” like I was rooting for a dramatic comeback in a football game.

So please, if you go see Eileen, don’t get discouraged if it’s not doing it for you in the opening few minutes. You really have to endure some middling psychological thriller tropes for the first two thirds of the action, but in the end it’s all worth it. When the other shoe drops, it raises the tension to that oh so satisfying level where anything is possible, which is what this genre is supposed to do. And who knows, you might even enjoy the whole thing. Hathaway has gotten a lot of praise for her turn as Rebecca, so while it did little for me, it might connect for you, making this all the more fun. But if it doesn’t, don’t worry. Thomasin McKenzie has you covered, another high point in a young career that’s only becoming more impressive with each entry.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Which young actors have you watched develop into top tier talents? Is the song stuck in your head for the rest of the day now? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on December 10, 2023.

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William J Hammon

All content is from the blog, “I Actually Paid to See This,” available at actuallypaid.com