Something strange has happened to Eileen Dunlop, and we don't just mean the plot of "Eileen." The adaptation of novelist Ottessa Moshfegh's delicious coming-of-age heroine has had a weird birth onto film.
The plot and setting haven't changed: It's late 1964 in a frigid coastal town in Massachusetts. "Everybody's kind of angry here -- it's Massachusetts," Eileen explains in one her best lines. She works as a clerk at a juvenile corrections facility, goes home to an alcoholic dad and repeats. Her whole world is a prison.
In print, she is dark and self-obsessed and deliciously willing to poke into every squeamish horror, even her own "folds and caverns." On celluloid, she is just a plain, anti-social Jane. In print in one scene, she scratches her nether regions and pointedly uses the unwashed fingers to shake hands with a boss. In the film, she just walks away. Eileen has been neutered.
It's not clear what has happened since Moshfegh -- along with Luke Goebel -- is a screenwriter as well as a producer. Moshfegh's original creation is a "fabulous shoplifter" who keeps a dead field mouse in the glove box of her smoky Dodge Coronet and loves National Geographic issues that feature unusual, painful tribal rituals. None of that made it to the film. That leaves her too inert, too passive -- wide-eyed without the naughty.
"Eileen" was always going to be a hard book to adapt, especially since it's so internal. It's really a character study for most of the way, then events get jolted by an unexpected outsider -- a real deus ex machina -- and then it evolves into a low-stakes noir thriller, right down to the film's too heavy Hitchcockian end credits.
By sanding off all the dark human quirks from their deeply human heroine, the filmmakers have left us a film that's just filling the space.
"Eileen," a Neon release in theaters Dec. 1, is rated R for "violent content, sexual content and language." Running time: 97 minutes. Two stars out of four.