Anne Hathaway, left, and Thomasin McKenzie in a scene from...

Anne Hathaway, left, and Thomasin McKenzie in a scene from "Eileen." Credit: Neon via AP/Jeong Park

PLOT A young secretary at a Massachusetts correctional facility for boys becomes obsessed with its new psychologist.

CAST Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham

RATED R (violent content, sexual content and language)


WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE Intriguing build-up, great acting, but precious little payoff.

"Eileen" plays like a movie lifted straight out of the 1960s, one that would have felt at home in the waning days of Hollywood's Golden Age.

It's a neo-noir set at a very specific place and time, coastal Massachusetts in the winter of 1964, captured in desaturated colors and constructed around feelings of intense, unrelenting obsession.

But for all its qualities, and for all of the genre touches that once might have been expected but now seem unique and even exciting, the movie suffers from a classic and common problem: a third act that does not deliver on the promise.

The story concerns a young woman named Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie, "Jojo Rabbit"), who works days as a secretary at a correctional facility for boys and  at nights cares for her alcoholic father (Shea Whigham), a former police chief who now spends his time drunkenly waving his gun around and verbally abusing his daughter.

This is not a happy existence. Eileen finds her brief moments of escape through fantasies and by overindulging in candy, which she admits has rotted her teeth. But that picture brightens when the new prison psychologist Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) brings some glamour and personality into Eileen's world. The doctor shows an interest in our protagonist that becomes reciprocated many times over, to the point where she can hardly think of anything or anyone else.

This adaptation of the prizewinning 2015 novel by Ottessa Moshfegh arrives via a screenplay she co-wrote with Luke Goebel. The director is William Oldroyd ("Lady Macbeth"), and he has a strong sense for how to bake this dreary, cold place into every frame of the picture. McKenzie shows herself to be especially apt at the essential art of conveying depth of feeling without having to rely on the crutch of too much dialogue. Hathaway once again shows herself to be far more adventurous of an actor than one might have once thought.

It's certainly intriguing, building its atmospheric mystery thanks to the strong craftsmanship. But after a whole lot of slow burning, and edge-of-your-seat development, it becomes a great disappointment to realize that the makers had no feel for how to end the story. Without divulging specifics, it shifts in a direction that's driven by plot demands and genre expectations instead of character development, and introduces whole new questions that it never unpacks. 

Finding the right ending remains one of the most difficult and persistent challenges in telling a story, so filmmakers deserve some latitude in carving one out, but they rarely miss this badly.

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