Synopsis: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Steve Vinovich
Director: Josephine Decker
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It seems a little too easy to label Shirley Jackson a “horror writer” but that’s largely what many of the press clippings and mentions of the author have done over the years since her death in 1965. True, a number of her works leaned toward the dark, supernatural, and unnerving, delving into psychological paranoia for good measure. However, her short stories and novels have remained startlingly timeless because they regularly uncover the ambiguity of societies pleasantries and expose what’s underneath a pallid façade. I loved The Haunting of Hill House and it’s as much about the inner demons of the lead character as it is about any ghosts that may roam around the titular mansion. Then, of course, there is The Lottery, a much discussed and oft-taught allegory of the deadly cost of following without questioning.
The Lottery is a good place to jump off for Shirley as well, as the movie begins just after Jackson’s short story was published in the late 1940s. Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the issue of the New Yorker in which it appeared as she travels with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to Bennington, VT. It’s here that Fred will serve as the teaching assistant to Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name)…who happens to be the husband of the reclusive and usually boozily bed-ridden Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man). Rose and Fred wind up living with the older couple, with Rose tending to Shirley and the household duties as the men are teaching. When a young girl on campus goes missing, Jackson is inspired to begin work on a longer piece which creates tension as her process is…intense. The longer she writes, the more out of control the household becomes and the lines between reality and fiction are continually blurred.
It’s important to note that those approaching Shirley hoping to get a better idea of who the author was should look elsewhere for their fact-finding mission. This movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, which fictionalizes the relationship between this younger couple and Jackson/Hyman. From what I’ve inferred, the story has been further bifurcated by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins who changed the time, locale, and critical elements of Jackson’s family life to better streamline the story she and director Josephine Decker are trying to tell. The result? A movie that feels a lot like the author herself: initially interesting but eventually exhausting.
There’s always something intriguing about an alternative take on a real life figure and I think it’s curious that not only did Jackson become a character in Scarf Merrell’s book but that the same book itself had an alternative take. That’s double (or triple?) meta for you. The problem with digging down that deep is that somewhere you’re going to lose the focus and that’s what sadly happens about halfway through Shirley. No matter how many creative camera angles Decker’s cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen employs or how often the spikey music from Tamar-kali jangles us, it can’t keep our minds from drifting. Instead of being swept up in the parasitic relationship that develops between Shirley and Rose (the sallow Jackson at the beginning seems to glow the more Rose’s complexion turns gray) the audience struggles to keep up with Decker’s paths that lead nowhere.
Jackson’s bouts with severe anxiety were well documented but they’re presented here as mental instabilities, given all the more strain by Moss’s mannered performance. Though she’s made a career over the past few years of playing similar complex women proving there’s no tic she can’t tackle, she comes up short here. The delivery feels like schtick, something planned instead of performed and while Moss working so awfully hard is to be commended, it leaves no room for anyone else to get a nuance in edgewise. Not that it stops Stuhlbarg from trying, gnashing his teeth on the scenery as exactly the kind of pompous literate we think a collegiate professor worth his salt would be. Lerman is mere set decoration so it’s up to Young to steal what moments she can from Moss and she takes what scraps are allowed and runs with them quite nicely.
I’ve a feeling there will be two camps where Shirley is concerned. First are those that buy what Moss is selling and can forgive the film for its hazy gaze at history and eventual descent into drab psychological drama. Then there are the others, like myself, who don’t mind a little revisionism…as long as its done with purpose or reflection. The real Shirley Jackson wrote about things that scare us, the movie version doesn’t even know where to begin.