Eileen Dunlop (Thomasin McKenzie) works at a youth prison and lives with her abusive, alcoholic father, Jim (Shea Whigham), in the attic of his rundown house. It’s a grim, dreary existence for a single woman, especially during the brutal Massachusetts winter of 1964. That’s the setting of director William Oldroyd’s adaptation of Newton native Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2015 novel, “Eileen.”
Moshfegh — whose screenplay for last year’s “Causeway” gave Jennifer Lawrence one of her best roles yet, and got Brian Tyree Henry an Oscar nomination — adapts her debut novel with “Causeway” co-writer, Luke Goebel. Both films feature two characters who, in a straightforward drama, would very likely have been destined to fall in love. However, those familiar with Moshfegh’s work know not to expect anything predictable.
Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth” (2016) is also about a young woman who’s not what she seems and who undergoes a change meant to jar the viewer. That film put Florence Pugh on the map. McKenzie is known for her turn in the 2018 drama “Leave No Trace,” and this mischievous performance will brighten her star even more.
Oldroyd and Moshfegh like to play the audience like a piano (to use Hitchcock’s famous quote). When “Eileen” showed at Sundance, its twists and turns proved divisive. This is a shape-shifter of a film; one minute it’s a dreary tale of Massachusetts woe, then a prison drama, then a halting love story, then a violent shocker. Throughout the movie, a neo-noirish vibe barely holds everything together.
“Eileen” opens with Eileen sitting in her car, watching a couple make out in the backseat of their car. As the scene becomes more heated, Eileen opens her car door, snatches up a handful of dirty snow, and shoves it down her underwear. I wasn’t sure of the film’s intended tone here — a problem I had throughout — but it certainly got my attention.
Peeping Tom perversions aside, Eileen appears to be a quiet young woman who keeps her head down at work at the youth prison and endures the gossip of her much older colleagues. Her father, Jim, was once the chief of police, but now he’s a violent alcoholic who drinks gin like tap water and aims his service pistol at schoolchildren walking past his house.
Though she fights back, Eileen appears to be loyal to her father despite his abuse. One of the nicer things Jim says to her is, “You look happy, what’s wrong with you?” When the neighbors complain about Jim’s gun-waving, the cops release his gun into Eileen’s care. Eileen promptly shoots herself with it. This scene is a fantasy sequence that comes abruptly out of nowhere. Later, Eileen shoots her father — also a fantasy.
When Eileen’s handsome officer colleague, Randy (Owen Teague), suddenly ravishes her in an empty office, the scene immediately shifts back to real life, where she’s inappropriately she-bopping at work.
All of these moments happen in the first act. They are meant to establish that perhaps Eileen isn’t the most reliable narrator in her own tale. I should mention that, unlike the book, which is narrated by Eileen, there’s no narration here at all. Dialogue and images propel the story from her point of view, which can be summed up in Eileen’s eerily prescient line, “Everyone is angry. This is Massachusetts!” (It’s actually New Jersey, where the film was shot.)
Every day, Eileen stares out her office window to observe a prisoner named Lee Polk (Sam Nivola). He always stands in the same spot and may be aware she’s looking. Unlike Eileen’s imagined patricide, Polk actually did kill his father and must continue his therapy treatments while incarcerated.
Enter Dr. Rebecca (Anne Hathaway). She’s the new prison psychiatrist who immediately piques Eileen’s interest and stokes her lust. Until Rebecca’s arrival, cinematographer Ari Wegner’s color palette has been all drab shades of gray. When Rebecca slithers onscreen (Hathaway gives off great femme fatale vibes), she is Marilyn Monroe-level blond and wearing a red dress that’s so bright it’s nearly blinding. The movie explodes with color.
Rebecca pays attention to Eileen, and soon Eileen is emulating her new hero, going so far as to wear a shade of red lipstick that pops like Rebecca’s red dress. As the two women get closer, we think this is going to be some kind of seduction-based love story, maybe even one about amour fou.
Then, “Eileen” pulls the rug out.
I won’t spoil what happens next, but I will mention a scene featuring the always welcome Marin Ireland that’s so well-acted and intense it elevated the movie for me. As she did in this year’s “The Boogeyman,” Ireland steps into her one scene and makes it worth the price of admission.
Ultimately, I respected the dramatic destination at which the film arrived, but I kept asking myself if the trip was really necessary. Sometimes you admire a movie more than you like it.
Directed by William Oldroyd. Written by Ottessa Moshfegh and Luke Goebel, based on the book “Eileen” by Moshfegh. Starring Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Sam Nivola, Marin Ireland. At Dedham Community Theatre, AMC Boston Common, suburbs. 97 minutes. R (violence, profanity, onanism)
Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.