A young couple stays at the house of author Shirley Jackson and her husband, getting drawn into their chaotic relationship, in a film that illuminates the mind and creative process of Jackson, a brilliant and eccentric literary figure played by Elisabeth Moss.
Shirley Jackson was an American writer whose style and subjects reveal a dark sense of humor, coupled with a strong feeling for the cruelty and inhumanity lying just under the surface in supposedly civilized people. Her life was in some ways as strange as her fiction—she died at the much too young age of 48—but the film from 2020 entitled Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, is not a biopic, as biographical dramas are usually called, but a story that mixes the truth with a bit of fiction in order to explore the sensibility of a unique woman artist in rebellion against all the expectations set against her.
The story is from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, adapted for the screen by Sarah Gubbins. In 1950, newlyweds Fred and Rose Nemser travel to Bennington College in Vermont, where Fred will work as a teaching assistant to the English professor Stanley Hyman. Stanley just happens to be the husband of Shirley Jackson, newly famous for her short story “The Lottery,” which Rose has just read on the train going to Vermont. Rose is played by an Australian, Odessa Young, who like so many British and Australian actors, has mastered an American accent. Anyway, Stanley has invited Fred and Rose to stay at his place until they find one of their own, and thus the young fictional couple are thrown together with the real life married couple producing a chemical reaction that drives the film.
Stanley Hyman is played with great verve by Michael Stuhlbarg: the professor is brilliant, arrogant, sarcastic, protective of Shirley, and yet at the same time unfaithful. Then, finally, after a nice build up, we meet Shirley Jackson herself, holding court at a crowded evening party in her house. One’s first impression is of an aggressive, unpredictable eccentric: a disaster waiting to happen. Shirley Jackson is played by Elisabeth Moss, and this, more than anything else, makes the movie extraordinary. Moss is at a point in her career where she can elevate anything she does to a higher level. She is both fearless and without vanity. Here she is mesmerizing.
Shirley has trouble just getting out of bed in the morning. She rarely goes outside. A chain smoker, and evidently a heavy drinker as well, Jackson treats Rose with hostility at first, while the younger woman tries to look past this in order to comprehend Shirley’s artistic process. It soon appears that Stanley wants Rose to act as a kind of caretaker of Shirley, someone who can protect her from her worst impulses. But it’s all more complicated than it seems.
Jackson is in the middle of writing a new novel, her second, inspired by the disappearance of a Bennington student, Paula Welden, four years ago. The mystery of Paula is blended with Jackson’s bitter ideas about the deceptions by which women become entangled with men. Rose gradually becomes identified somehow with Paula in Jackson’s mind, as an inspiration for her writing. Rose’s vulnerability in relationship to this strange, intense, dominating writer, and Jackson’s fleeting moments of tenderness towards her, are wonderfully embodied here by Odessa Young and Elisabeth Moss. Michael Stuhlbarg plays Stanley as a sinister intellectual force pushing against Jackson’s resistance to finishing the book. The wild card is Rose’s husband Fred, played by Logan Lerman. Stanley treats him like a whipping boy, but he has another secret part to play in the story.
Decker, the director, uses a lot of handheld camera and close-ups to heighten the tension. The sordid quarreling in Jackson’s marriage, combined with the artifice of the novel forming in her head, is a strong brew, and provides a fascinating look into the mind of a reclusive artist. Shirley is not a perfect film, but I like the chances it takes, and I’m beginning to think that Elisabeth Moss can do anything.