Josephine Decker’s prickly, unnerving “Shirley,” is set mostly in the Bennington, Vermont, home of the reclusive writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). But it also takes place in the gothic, heightened realm of one of Jackson’s own stories.
Jackson, sometimes called a horror writer, penned the vividly violent allegory “The Lottery” and the ghost story “The Haunting of Hill House.” In “Shirley,” Jackson is just beginning what will be her 1951 novel “Hangsaman,” inspired by the disappearance of an 18-year-old college girl.
Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, “Shirley” doesn’t stick faithfully to autobiography. In real life, she and Hyman had four children and lived elsewhere. Here, their childless, academic life is soaked through with the bitterness and free-flowing cocktails of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”
When a young academic protege named Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife, Rose (Odessa Young) move in, an increasingly claustrophobic psychological drama takes hold. Art and reality get distorted while deeper truths come sharply in focus. “Shirley” is like a distorted prism through which you can see clearly.
This is Decker’s fourth film (Martin Scorsese is an executive producer) and she has firmly established herself as a director of intense and immersive craft. Her filmmaking, cunning in its perspectives, is intricately tied to the psychologies — and sometimes the psychoses — of its characters. Decker’s last film, “Madeline’s Madeline,” was about a teenage girl struggling with mental illness while finding expression in a theatre workshop.
Lines likewise blur in “Shirley.” The film may ultimately reside in the mind of Jackson but we enter into it from the viewpoint of Rose. The young couple, initially planning to stay with Hyman and Jackson for only a few days, are coaxed into staying. Rose, pregnant and forced into playing the role of housewife, is seemingly an opposite to Shirley, but they’re drawn together by the shared misogyny they live under. Rose tells her reading “The Lottery” made her feel “thrillingly horrible.” Shirley smiles.
They are each rebelling in their own way to a suffocating sexism. Shirley, furious at the open affair of her husband and his manipulative criticism of her work (Stuhlbarg is oppressively good), has been branded a “witch.” Rumored to be mad, she has perversely taken to the role — and invites Rose (who’s beginning to grasp the same frustrations) to join her. “What happens to all lost girls?” Shirley says of her book. “They go mad.”
There are few more daring actors around right now than Moss, and “Shirley” may be her best performance yet. She’s brutally cutting but the pain of every slight ripples across her face. A lifetime of repression has hardened and mangled her, turning her gloriously monstrous. The men around her can’t possibly fathom her power.
“Shirley,” a Neon release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images. Running time: 117 minutes. Three stars out of four.
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Jake Coyle, The Associated Press