“Eileen” Doesn’t Deserve To Be Called “Carol for Psychos”

This review contains mild spoilers for Eileen


To call EileenCarol for psychos” is to view the 2015 film through the blur of its signature snow-paned windows; to reduce a work of sound and images to a plot summary.

Because, yes, like Eileen, Carol is about a quiet young woman who falls for an older woman in a fabulous coat around Christmastime. But Carol’s achievements are found in the subtle nuance of the characters, the poetry of Ed Lachman’s cinematography, the emotion of Carter Burwell’s score, the attention to detail and performance director Todd Haynes brings to every aspect of his filmmaking. Film is rarely about the what — it’s about the how.

I begin with this comparison because I’m struggling to parse out why William Oldroyd’s Eileen feels like such a failure. It has a stellar cast led by Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway, it has a queer story tailor-made to my interests, and it has a huge tonal shift that should delight the devilish side of my cinephilia. And yet, the film falls flat — its elements failing to cohere.

Eileen is about its titular character (McKenzie), a young woman who spends her days in a small Massachusetts town working as a secretary in a boys prison and her nights tending to her abusive, alcoholic father. She is bored and she is horny and she has a vibrant, violent imagination. Her world explodes when a psychologist named Rebecca (Hathaway) is hired at the prison. Eileen is immediately smitten, desperate to be and be with this confident, older blonde who flirts with ease and always has a cigarette dangling out of her mouth.

The film is based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s acclaimed novel and co-written by Moshfegh and Luke Goebel. The two screenwriters previously worked together on Causeway, another movie with a queer protagonist that confused subtlety and emptiness. Read the Wikipedia synopsis for Moshfegh’s book and you will have a near-identical experience to watching this film. It’s not that loose adaptations are inherently better than loyal adaptations, but there should be some understanding that the mediums of film and literature differ. Lacking the explicit interiority of the page, a film must find the nuances of its characters, story, and themes in specificity. It’s this specificity Eileen often lacks.

There’s a moment midway through the film that encapsulates this problem. Eileen and Rebecca are at a bar, the only bar in town according to Eileen. It’s established that the bartender knows Eileen and her father. But then Rebecca tells some men who are flirting with them that her name is Eileen and Eileen’s is Rebecca. Who are these men? Wouldn’t they know Eileen already? How small is this town? This may seem like an annoying nitpick, but it’s representative of the film scene-by-scene, moment-to-moment. The setting and the characters fluctuate based on plot convenience. This is mirrored in the film’s craft. It looks great, it sounds nice, the performances are solid, but none of the choices feel inspired by character or story. One gets a sense of the kind of film this wants to be more than it actually fulfills its goals.

The mediocrity of Eileen wouldn’t matter if the film was just a deliciously twisted affair where Anne Hathaway looks sexy as hell in a blonde wig. The problem is the film’s self-importance. Set at a prison, featuring a subplot about sexual assault, and filled with discussions of criminality, reform, and repression, Eileen has lofty thematic ambitions. Unfortunately, its approach to these topics is confused at best.

Director William Oldroyd’s previous film, Lady Macbeth, was similarly broad. He gravitated toward a sense of depth without actually saying much at all. That film claimed to tackle issues of sexism, race, and power, but it did little except shout them with the nuance of a hollow Instagram infographic. Eileen has a similar problem. Its empty characters and muddled plot fail its serious topics.

I’d rather a film tackle serious subject matter with nuance rather than stating a point like a persuasive essay. But if a filmmaker doesn’t have anything to argue, they should at least have things they want to explore. They should have something to add to the conversation whether or not they reach any conclusions.

Ultimately, Eileen is evidence of what happens when we group films together without an eye toward quality. All lesbian films about two cis white women filled with angst and longing are not the same. All films that take big tonal swings are not the same. All movies that tackle subject matter like sexual abuse are not the same.

As audience members, we may be more responsive to some subject matter and types of films than others. But, ultimately, what matters most is whether a film is good. Eileen is not good.


Eileen is now playing in theatres.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 477 articles for us.

17 Comments

    • I’m very curious to see how the film handles it. Rebecca very deliberately charming / seducing Eileen for her own ends is a key plot point in the book. As is the moment of clarity when the protagonist realises that she’s been played.

    • How is it queer baiting – no one making this film set out for it to be a lesbian romance, that’s pure projection. If you’re looking at it through this narrow lens then yes, you’re going to find it lacking. Seems a very shallow and pointless way to view art. Anyway I thought it was a decent adaptation

    • God bless you for speaking up about this film’s flat mediocrity! The trailer was deceiving. The film was a disservice to the gays, the cast, and cinema. Biggest disappointment of the year.

  1. Character studies are often difficult to translate to film, and this is definitely where Eileen lacks. The entire novel is filled with oddball inner monologues and observations that are more or less a defense mechanism for her unfulfilled longings and aspirations, something that generally doesn’t translate well to film. Even with the film being relatively slow, it was crippled by its little over 90 minute runtime and could have been longer.

    When it comes to the ”queer” aspects of the film, Rebecca was nothing more than a vessel for Eileen’s character progression, something that is a lot more obvious in the novel. There is a (sexual) longing from Eileen towards Rebecca, but it’s clear that it’s not what the story is about. (Rebecca doesn’t show up until quite late into the novel)
    Going into the film “blind” is going to leave a bittersweet feeling if one is expecting to see a lesbian romance blossoming. Most of the promotional material is quite misleading because it uses Anne Hathaway’s star power to promote the flick and is trying to sell it as a ”Hitchcockian” ‘Carol’.

    All of that said, I wouldn’t say it was a terrible film by any means. I actually quite enjoyed it for what it was. Everything before the final act was well crafted, and the performances were good besides some dodgy Boston accents. The final act gave me the same sense of whiplash as when I read the novel because the characters’ movements were all over the place and it also felt extremely rushed. I’m not going to delve deeper into it because of spoilers, but I have a feeling that most people who have seen the film would agree with that statement.

    So yeah, Eileen wasn’t a perfect film by any means, but it sure as hell doesn’t deserve this much negativity and hostility. That, combined with uncalled-for hating on Lady Macbeth and a lack of objectivity, makes this review come across as a self-important blog post as opposed to an open-minded and unbiased review.

    • an… unbiased… review? of a film?
      Your comment (up until the confusing last sentence) was an interesting review of the film based on your context as someone who had read the book.

      I found Drew’s review, with her context of a dislike of the director’s previous work, and with the extremely Autostraddle-relevant Carol framing, also very interesting!

      The experience of a film is subjective. That’s… what makes film reviews interesting? Or maybe that is just me.

    • There’s no such thing as an “unbiased” review. The reviewer brings her life experience to the film, all the films she has seen before, all the stories she has read, and filters the movie through them all.

  2. I got blocked from a lesbian Instagram account for scoffing when they posted that “we are getting a Carol with Anne Hathaway.” This is no Carol, in either a literary or cinematic sense.

    Having read Eileen, and having enjoyed it, I was curious to see the film. I happen to like Anne Hathaway and I think she did a good job of it, but while I thought the film was fine, it’s not going to have a place on my favorite film lists. I do think it’s a bit queerbait-y–and the trailer definitely is. (Ophelia’s comment above is an excellent take on what’s going on with our protagonist.)

    Phyllis Nagy’s adaptation of The Price of Salt takes liberties, like any adaptation, but it doesn’t misrepresent. Ottessa Moshfegh’s (co-written) adaptation of her own book *does* seem to misrepresent. She writes in an essay for The Guardian: “I never thought of Eileen as a queer novel, but I welcome that interpretation as it allows its female characters to be seductive and seduced by one another.” Except…they don’t?

    • It’s not remotely similar to Carol; even in premise. I assume that line must be in a press release or media kit. I’ll probably still see the film; I’ll see what y’all mean about the queerbaiting.

  3. I haven’t seen it yet. But large chunks of the book are inner monologue, and I was wary when I saw it had a 15 rating. I’m confused by comparisons to Carol; unless they’ve completely changed the plot, they’re not remotely similar.

  4. I thought the ending hit a little flat, but really enjoyed the rest of the movie!

    Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I thought the first half had a much stronger black comedy bend then I was expecting. The movie literally opens with her putting a handful of snow down her skirt because she’s too horny!

  5. Is this about Julia Zelg and the elderly criminal scammer Eileen DeFreest who is all over the DailyMail? She got them into debt and now has a sugar daddy named Keith. It’s the lesbian adventure of the century

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