Supple young housewife Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) describes reading Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery” as making her feel “thrillingly horrible.” In fact, so overwhelmed is Rose by the tale’s twisted ending that as soon as she’s finished reading it she drags her square, schoolteacher husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to their train compartment restroom for whatever’s the railroad equivalent of the mile-high club. That a couple might spontaneously screw after reading something published in The New Yorker is one of the perverse delights of SHIRLEY, director Josephine Decker’s phantasmagoric take on Jackson’s literary legacy.
Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the picture isn’t interested in the horror writer’s actual biography but rather in the idea of Shirley Jackson, an agoraphobic self-proclaimed witch who penned such terrifying stories while living with her philandering literary critic husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) on the campus of Bennington College. Shirley’s played by Elisabeth Moss in twitchy, full-tilt Moss mode–chain-smoking and picking away at the patriarchy in increasingly erratic, what-would-Gena-Rowlands-do outbursts. (Moss is always a fascinating actress to watch but I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing her do a nice rom-com to give those shredded nerves a much-deserved vacation.)
Fred’s been hired to teach under the mercurial Stanley, which somehow lands the young newlyweds living in the Hymans’ guest room and pregnant Rose pushed into cooking and helping Shirley with household chores. Faster than you can say “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, the kids get caught up in their elders’ spiteful psychosexual headgames, and the film starts to feel something like a “Rocky Horror” for English majors as we cheer on the corruption of milquetoast Fred and this almost obscenely overripe Rose. She’s first an assistant and plaything to Shirley, then an erotic interest before blossoming into an ally, role-playing the protagonist of Jackson’s latest novel “Hangsaman” as the film’s POV becomes increasingly unmoored.
“Shirley” is the most mainstream project yet from director Decker, though I’m guessing it will still probably be too much for a lot of audiences. As in her 2018 triumph “Madeline’s Madeline,” Decker takes a destabilizing approach to scenes, eschewing establishing shots and shoving the camera too close to the characters at odd, disjunctive angles in harsh lighting and shifting, shallow focus. “Shirley” is only her fourth feature but Decker’s already developed an instantly recognizable visual style that feels like it’s made entirely of elbows. The movies are woozy, unsteady.
The tweedy decadence of the campus, with fetching co-eds from “The Shakespeare Society” draped across tree branches like mythological sirens and boozy faculty dinners awash in innuendo makes “Shirley” the best Bennington joke ever told. This debauchery is presided over by Stuhlbarg, giving a puckish performance I never imagined he had in him. After a decade of nice guys and nebbishes, it’s a hoot to watch his freak flag fly, leering at and looming over our innocent Rose. Every comment contains a sinister insinuation, even when (or especially when) he’s got food in his beard.
Don’t expect to learn anything about the life of Shirley Jackson from this movie–the film erases the four children she had with Stanley–and instead surrender to the unsettling, sickly comic mood. It’s a tribute to an artist untethered to pesky maters such as biographical truth, instead paying homage to Jackson’s singular style by finding a filmic equivalent. When it’s over you’ll feel thrillingly horrible.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality