Producers: Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu, Peter Cron, Luke Goebel, Ottessa Moshfegh and William Oldroyd   Director: William Oldroyd   Screenplay: Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh  Cast: Thomasin McKenzie, Anne Hathaway, Shea Whigham, Marin Ireland, Owen Teague, Sam Nivola, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Jefferson White and Tonye Patano   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B+

William Oldroyd’s 2016 directorial debut “Lady Macbeth,” an adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novella “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” transposed to Victorian Northumbria, showcased a breakthrough lead performance by Florence Pugh as the ambitious, unscrupulous heroine.  In his sophomore outing a full seven years later, he elicits two extraordinary turns, from Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway.

The vehicle is a psychological thriller in the Highsmith mode based on Ottessa Moshfegh’s debut 2015 novel.  McKenzie plays Eileen Dunlop, a shy, mousy young woman working as a general assistant at a Massachusetts penitentiary for young male offenders.  She’s sexually repressed, masturbating while spying on a couple necking in a car, fantasizing about a guard (Owen Teague) coming on to her, or watching handsome inmate Lee Polk (Sam Nivola) alone in the courtyard.  She’s also treated like dirt by the rest of the staff, especially scowling jail overseer Mrs. Murray (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), for whose disastrously hokey Christmas pageant she’s forced to work the spotlight.

Her home life is even more miserable.  She lives with her widowed father Jim (Shea Whigham), an alcoholic ex-cop who’s constantly threatening the neighbors with his old service revolver and berating his daughter for being one of those people who just take up space in the world.  (Eileen has a sister, we learn in one exchange, but she’s married and has a life—and never visits the old homestead.)  So Eileen is a victim, but also an enabler, meekly buying booze and cigarettes for him and smoothing out his encounters with the law despite his treatment of her. 

Enter Rebecca St. John (Hathaway), the new prison psychologist with a PhD from Harvard (she corrects the warden in his introductory remarks to the staff, where he says Radcliffe) and a bearing and wardrobe that suggest Marilyn Monroe.  Eileen is enthralled by her, and to her surprise Rebecca, with her perfectly coiffed blonde hair and a slim cigarette between her fingers, treats her not with disdain but acceptance, indeed friendship.  Rebecca even invites her out for drinks and they dance together, to the suspicious glances of the men at the bar.  Rebecca will have none of their impudence.  And Eileen blossoms, taking to her dead mother’s closet for clothes to replace her drab, matronly outfits and using cosmetics as well.

For a while “Eileen” enters the territory of Todd Haynes’s film of Highsmith’s “Carol,” suggesting a pairing between the statuesque Rebecca and liberated Eileen that’s defiantly erotic.  But then the plot takes a jarring twist as Rebecca show an interest in the Polk case and invites Lee’s mother Rita (Marin Ireland) to visit the boy.  That only increases Eileen’s fascination, since Lee is incarcerated for having killed his father—a fact that resonates with the young woman who can’t help but imagine doing the same to hers.  It would be unfair to reveal much more, but not to say that a role-reversal is a distinct possibility, though of what sort would be difficult to predict.

Those who have read the novel may regret alterations from it, including the elimination of what amounts to its postscript—though since Moshfegh is one of the screenwriters, one can only assume she agreed with them, even if they tend to simplification.  And they, along with newcomers, will certainly agree that both McKenzie and Hathaway provide stunning realizations of the characters on the page.  While both are superb, however, primacy must go to McKenzie, whose portrayal of the transformation Eileen goes through over the course of the narrative is truly remarkable.  Whigham, meanwhile, paints a sharp portrait of a monstrous failure of a father, and, over a shorter span of screen time, Ireland a piercing one of an equally monstrous mother.  The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent.

But ultimately the success of the film lies with Oldroyd, whose control of the material, which ranges in tone from creepily unnerving to poignant to steamily intoxicating and sometimes scaldingly funny, is uncanny.  He’s abetted in the creation of the unsettling atmosphere by production designer Craig Lathrop and cinematographer Ari Wegner, who craft an environment of chilly shabbiness shattered by surrealistic garishness as required; by costumer Olga Mill, whose outfits for Eileen and Rebecca strike precisely the right notes; by editor Nick Emerson, who manages the shifts of mood and moody transitions for the most part with great skill (faltering only in the final act, where some confusion creeps in); and by composer Richard Reed Parry, whose spare score manages to meld quiet menace and grim propulsion.

Some will criticize the film for being deliberately enigmatic and elliptical, but its delicious ambiguity is precisely what situates it in Highsmith territory—always a good place to be.