By MARK BENEDICT
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, and Logan Lerman
Directed by Josephine Decker
Screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, Based on the Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Distributed by Neon
A young woman, seated next to her husband on a speeding train, is deeply engaged in her New Yorker. She’s reading “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s infamous 1948 short story about a public stoning. Gleeful upon finishing it, the woman yanks her husband into the bathroom for a quick tryst.
That’s the striking opening of “SHIRLEY,” director Josephine Decker’s biography of sorts about Shirley Jackson, newly available to VOD and Hulu. Even if you question the plausibility of reading “The Lottery” as a turn-on, it’s still a strong opener; one that announces, defiantly, that this is no standard, staid biopic. The rest of the film makes good on that promise, though it’s fair to wish for more spine-tingling than it delivers.
Billed as a biographical thriller, the film is a mix of loose fact and pure invention. It’s set in the boozy household of horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her philandering professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) – the train couple, the newly married Nemsers, have come to stay with them. Rose (Odessa Young) is a pregnant student, while Fred (Logan Lerman) is a budding professor. Stanley, a campus star, is supposed to be mentoring Fred, but the reality is that the younger couple is mostly there to cook and clean. As a depressed and disheveled Shirley starts work on her novel Hangsaman, she and Stanley engage in mind games, both playful and vicious, with both the younger couple and each other.
Indeed, the ever-shifting relationships are the primary focus here; Shirley treats Rose first as a threat, then a friend, then a lover. Stanley, by turns, flatters and taunts the others. His flirtation with Rose is subtle at first, then not. Identities blur. Whenever Shirley envisions the missing-girl protagonist of Hangsaman, it is a distorted version of Rose that she sees. Nuzzled from behind, Rose turns expecting to see her husband Fred, only to find the lecherous Stanley. By the end of the film, this young woman will come to resemble Shirley at her most distraught.
Elisabeth Moss is first-rate in the title role. In addition to her gift for scowling glances and withering line readings, Moss brings a funny, darting quality to the part, lunging her mouth toward an offered cigarette or a forbidden mushroom. Michael Stuhlbarg is almost as good as her sleazy intellectual husband, exuding both smarm and smarts. The younger actors, though their parts are largely reactive, likewise do fine work. Also impressive is the film’s visual style. The photography is kinetic and blazingly inventive. Early on, there’s an arresting shot of Shirley sprawling on the floor that’s inverted to look like she’s floating on the ceiling. Near the end, there’s an enticingly enigmatic sequence of cross-cutting between a cliff vista and a car interior.
Still, for all the movie has going for it, it’s not as taut or creepy as it should be.
“Shirley finds sustained tension and real cohesion only in its final stretch, when dark secrets are revealed and true stakes emerge.”
The film is more engaging than riveting. The scenes, though great to look at, aren’t always propulsive or even affecting. Shirley is already a campus pariah and fully agoraphobic when the film begins, so there’s not much sting or drama to her suffering. Her visions of the Hangsaman heroine, which could have been horrific scorchers, are instead fairly standard girl-running-in-the-woods stuff. Rose’s nightmare about gyrating tree nymphs is creepier but could go farther. Not every story thread is essential. A tangent about the merits of Fred’s dissertation is as pulse-calming as the thesis squabbles in last year’s Midsommar. It’s Shirley Jackson’s writing, not Fred’s, that we want to hear about. But context is not director Josephine Decker’s top priority. If you’re unfamiliar with Hangsaman, you might feel a bit adrift. The film implies that the book could make or break Jackson’s career, but there’s no urgency, no deadline, no time crunch.
“SHIRLEY’s” closest cinematic relative, as many have noted, is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), which similarly features a booze-soaked, campus-set story of an older couple gaming a younger one. But weirdly, given that “SHIRLEY” has thriller aspirations and Who’s Afraid is content to be a drama, the older film is actually more of a pressure cooker. It unfolds over a single nasty night and has a zinger a minute, whereas “SHIRLEY”is dispersed over several months and has some zingers but also more moody silence than necessary. Black Swan (2010), another portrait of an artist as a hot mess, also came to my mind, and though not necessarily a better film than “SHIRLEY”, it’s probably more consistently intense. Am I alone in thinking that a thriller about Shirley Jackson should be, you know, thrilling? In any case, “SHIRLEY” finds sustained tension and real cohesion only in its final stretch, when dark secrets are revealed and true stakes emerge.
The film embodies the darkly delicious Shirley Jackson flavor only up to a point. The identity blurring is pure Jackson, but her primary theme, the societal entrapment of women by various means including an uneven share of childrearing duties, is suggested but not dramatized. Her own kids are omitted here, which declutters the story but dilutes the meaning. Jackson’s fiction, when not outright murderous, is ablaze with violent thoughts. This, too, is only partly evident in “SHIRLEY,” which often seems on the verge of going hog-wild crazy but never actually does.
Your mileage may vary. It’s a film that will bore some and dazzle others, though I can’t see many being deeply spooked or gutted by it. To my mind, that’s a flaw. “SHIRLEY” is about a vastly morbid, intensely sad writer yet somehow doesn’t manage to freak us out or break our hearts.