February 2, 2023

Sundance 2023 Reviews: “Eileen,” “Shortcomings” & “Landscape With Invisible Hand”


EILEEN:  A dark tale of liberation, based on the novel by Ottessa Moshlegh (and adapted by Moshlegh with Luke Goebel).  Eileen (Thomasin McKenzie) is an anonymous employee at a boys’ prison in a confining, wintry Massachusetts town during the early 1960s.  Her job is depressing, and her home life is worse, stuck alone in a gloomy house with her abusively alcoholic ex-cop father (Shea Whigham).  Apart from some desultory fantasies about one of the prison guards, Eileen’s life is desolate.  That all changes when Rebecca (Anne Hathaway) arrives as the prison’s new psychiatrist.  Cultured, Kennedy-esque, and heedless of convention, Rebecca enchants Eileen, and when the older woman takes an interest in her, it seems like Eileen might be a love story.  It isn’t.  It would be unfair to reveal what obsesses Rebecca, but the result is ugly and ultimately violent, in a way that will change Eileen’s life forever.  Director William Oldroyd made Lady Macbeth, which gave Florence Pugh her first leading role, and Eileen is a similarly measured character study that eventually explodes.  Oldroyd captures Eileen’s oppressive milieu with tightly controlled cinematography by Ari Wegner (who shot The Power Of the Dog), costumes by Olga Mill, and production design by Craig Lathrop.  He also draws exceptional performances from his cast.  McKenzie gives Eileen’s misery a furious edge, and her excitement when it seems like her life may be changing is infectious.  Rebecca is one of Hathaway’s best roles, a canny piece of casting that makes use of the actress’s glamor and gift for staginess.  Whigham is chilling as Eileen’s father, and Marin Ireland electrifies in a small but crucial part.  Eileen is gripping and surprising, a snowy ride into the outskirts of desperation.

SHORTCOMINGS:  Randall Park’s directing debut challenges the eternal studio note to keep a protagonist somewhat likable.  Ben (Justin H. Min) is, not to put too fine a point on it, a thorough dick.  An aspiring filmmaker, he manages a Berkeley moviehouse with the minimal amount of effort.  He treats his longterm girlfriend Miko (Ally Maki) and her job running a small Asian-American film festival with contempt, nursing his own not-so-hidden desire for blond white women.  It’s a predilection he’s happy to indulge when Miko takes an internship in New York, first with one of his employees at the theater (Tavi Gevinson), then with a woman he meets at a party (Debby Ryan).  He doesn’t treat his best friend Alice (Sherry Cola) much better.  When Ben’s job goes under and he becomes suspicious of what Miko is doing in New York, he follows her there, imposing on Alice and her first serious girlfriend (Sonoya Mizuno).  What he discovers blows up his life, in a way that finally may teach him a lesson.  Despite Park’s breezy tone, the bright cast and the often witty writing by Adrian Tomine (adapting his own graphic novel), Shortcomings can be a tough watch, since it’s hard not to actively root against its putative hero.  Park and Min, to their credit, don’t try to sugarcoat Ben’s obnoxiousness, and the rest of the cast is very appealing (there’s a particularly funny bit with Timothy Simons as one of the people Ben encounters in New York).  The question for Shortcomings is whether people will want to spend 90 minutes watching a comedy centered around someone so off-putting, with the prospect that he might be a little less awful as the end credits prepare to roll.

LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND (MGM/Amazon):  Cory Finley’s sci-fi satire is nothing if not imaginative.  Based on a novel by M.T. Anderson, it’s set in a future where aliens called the Vuvv have conquered earth, not through warfare or plague but via capitalism:  they offered fantastic technology to the rich that left no jobs or resources for anyone else.  Now the wealthy live off-world, and those left on Earth are lucky to have a home and some synthetic food.  Adam (Asante Blackk), a talented teen artist, lives with his single mother (Tiffany Haddish) and sister (Brooklynn MacKinzie), and when they take in a family living on the road, the family’s daughter Chloe (Kylie Rogers), who is Adam’s crush, comes up with a way to make some cash.  The Vuvv, blockish creatures who communicate by rubbing together their paddle-like hands, making noises that have to be translated, have a certain fascination with human romance.  So Chloe and Adam give them a real-time reality show abut the couple, for which they’re paid the equivalent of streaming fees.  However, when the Vuvv discover that the emotions aren’t real, the families end up more deeply enmeshed with the aliens than ever.  Landscape With Invisible Hand ends up as a parable about art, principles and what one is willing to sacrifice for material comfort.  Finley, who directed the cunning thriller Thoroughbreds and the dark comedy Bad Education, is working in a different scale and tone here, and although many of the plot turns are unexpected, the actors are sharp and the world-building is genuinely impressive, Finley doesn’t really pull off the stretch he’s attempting.  His film is a feat, but it doesn’t have a cohesive emotional or narrative thread.  After this sharp left turn, though, it will be fascinating to see what Finley does next.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."