[At this writing — early June 2020 — Shirley is streaming through various arthouse-cinemas services during COVID-19 theater closures.]


You wouldn’t want to be quarantined with the horror-story author in the spotlight of Shirley.

If you’re looking for straightforward, historically grounded biopic of Shirley Jackson, author of The Haunting of Hill House and that gold-standard short story “The Lottery,” you’ll have to hope for a different film. Josephine Decker’s Shirley takes artistic license the way a 16-year-old earns her driver’s license and then roars out of the parking lot into traffic and slams the pedal to the floor. This is something much more imaginative: a stubbornly realistic fantasy (that is to say, it doesn’t go the predictable route of using easy fairy-tale images as metaphors) about what life might have been like for this troubled but and troublingly talented writer. And it just might be that director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins have tapped into something truer than any fact-adherent drama might offer.

But before I get to the best that this psychodrama might have to offer, let me assure you that there are many reasons to see it — from the complex work by an outstanding ensemble cast, to the twitchy and expressive cinematography, to the period detail of academia in 1950s Vermont, to the subversive and surprising script that dares to open a reservoir of very particular grief rarely acknowledged at the movies.

Best of all, this Shirley draws from Elizabeth Moss what looks to me like the best performance of her career thus far — which is saying something, as I’m still shaking from the forces she unleashed as a Courtney Love-like rocker in last year’s Her Smell. Moss’s Shirley is compellingly mysterious. She’s a feminist carrying a furnace of righteous rage in her belly. She’s an artist who sees everyone more clearly than they see themselves, which makes her dangerous. And yet there’s much more: She seems to teeter on the edge of an abyss of grief we don’t quite understand. And there’s a long-take performance in the closing minutes that deserves to be mentioned alongside Nicole Kidman’s legendary long take in Jonathan Glazer’s Birth. (That’s all I’m going to say about the performance’s peak. I want to spare you spoilers.)

Elizabeth Moss gives her most award-worthy performance yet in Shirley.

Matching Moss’s excellence with another remarkable turn of his own, Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast as Shirley’s husband Stanley Hyman, a philandering Bennington College professor whose lectures are as smug and self-serving as his criticism is cruel — he’s phenomenal in a complicated role. One moment, he’s hamming it up in front of a class of spellbound girls; the next, he’s pulling his near-comatose wife from their bed and urging her to get back to work; the next, he’s holding a butter knife over her head and comparing her to Lady Macbeth. We never know what he’ll do next.

The house where Jackson and Hyman carry on their cold war of grudges, egos, and infidelities isn’t exactly squalid, but look behind the wrong doors and you’ll see evidence of disarray, whether its the bedsheets where Shirley sweats in her depression or the offices of papers and projects predictably strewn. “A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” she says in self-defense, allowing herself a rare cliché. But it doesn’t take long for the film to reveal at least one of the primary causes of Jackson’s distress.

Shirley may be the main character, but she’s too strange, too complicated a character for us to bond with quickly; we need tour guides into the labyrinth of her angers and obsessions. So we follow Rose Nesmer (Odessa Young) and her new husband, the ambitious PhD student Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), into the community of Bennington College. There, Rose and Fred will find themselves as tenants in the Jackson/Hyman home while Fred looks for a foothold on the academic ladder. They will bear witness to the stormiest marriage since Javier Bardem terrorized Jennifer Lawrence in Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, the Jackson–Hyman manor a literal battlefield of verbal grenades and nuclear silences. This haunted house is the nexus of Stanley’s habitual mischief and Jackson’s sudden success over “The Lottery,” the dystopian nightmare that will have scarred some of us in high school.

The Nesmers—Fred and Rose—get mesmerized and nearly traumatized by their literary hosts.

It takes only a few hours for Rose get over being starstruck; the reality of Shirley, teetering on the edge of madness as she wrestles a new novel (cross-reference Jackson’s 1951 Hangsaman), is far darker and more difficult than she could have imagined. Meanwhile, Fred goes to work networking and awkwardly angling for a foothold on the academic ladder, which will bring with it, it’s easy to see, the very temptations that have rotted the heart of the Jackson/Hyman marriage.

Drama will ensue, of course. The certainty of extramarital affairs and affairs of imaginative exploitation. The possibility of poisoning. Eruptions of heartless literary criticism. The threat of emotional and physical abuse. And the promise that a big faculty party might turn into a stage for Shirley’s vengeful theatrics. There’s even a missing-person mystery at the heart of things, one that occasionally threatens to make a detective team of Shirley and Rose. (Thank goodness, this movie is smarter than that.)

For a while, this film gave me a familiar headache: It felt overacted, like the work of gifted actors giving each other big moments to play until the weight of their Acting crushes an insufficient script and spoils our suspension of disbelief. (That’s what I was anticipating, anyway, as the film began because it’s exactly how I felt about the improvisational delirium of Decker’s last film, Madeline’s Madeline, which enchanted others but exhausted me.)

Driven to the edge of her own sanity by Shirley’s provocations, Rose can’t escape unstained.

On top of that, the film is abrasive in its visual approximations of misery, a mise-en-scène often green-tinged and blurry, that reminds me of the stifling gloom of Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. Such grim aesthetics have become all too familiar in movies about depression, movies that rarely rise above wallowing in lurid spectacle.

But step by step, Shirley and Rose — the latest target of her jealousies, who becomes her flirtation, and then her confidant, and then her co-conspirator — come to share an understanding as intimate and as substantial (perhaps more so) as that shared by Héloïse and Marianne in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Shirley’s long-term loneliness and disillusionment and Rose’s naïveté become magnetic. From their first moments onscreen, it’s clear that Young has been cast as Rose so her character can remind us of a younger Shirley, or suggest her potential to embrace Shirley’s brand of madness. In their quiet conversations, the two actresses look like Before and After photos.

But is this a story of a master finding an apprentice? Of Shirley finding company in her loneliness? Or is this all ultimately an author’s opportunistic exploitation of the young and naive for sake of material?

The answer isn’t simple or clear, but it is fascinating.

Shirley’s dinner dialogue with her husband Stanley is as precise and riveting as any onscreen duel this year.

As Shirley moves from seeing Rose as a threat to pitying her for pending trouble, she is revealed as a sort of saint for “unseen” women. For all of her literary celebrity, Shirley still feels unknown; her refusal to conform to community expectations, and her husband’s complaints about tending to her depression, brand her among the academic elite as a pariah. She refuses to settle for anything but authenticity, turning down invitations to smile and accompany her charismatic husband into the swamp of the rich, the fashionable, and the popular, where he feels so comfortable. (There is also an insightful examination here of what happens to to the souls of artistic introverts in the context of self-promoters, socialites, and peer-pressure.) Ultimately, Moss’s performance ends up being more than mere theatrics — there’s real wisdom in this invention. Shirley is discomfortingly real and ravenous, determined to make a heaven of this hell she can’t escape. Madness — fueled by constant cocktails — starts to make an appealing kind of sense when there’s no other way around condescension and betrayal except suicide.

By the film’s furious conclusion, I find all of these studies compelling — the one about artists, but even more the one about women (spouses and students alike) who suffer in male-dominated academia. Yes, we’ve seen progress. But while women have gained ground long denied them, the world of higher education is still a raging battlefield of egos.

Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a particularly wicked sort of misogynistic professor.

I’ve known a lot of charismatic professors. I’ve heard plenty of stories about teacher-student affairs, and I’ve had good friends shock me with testimonies about teachers who made passes at them, or worse. And I’ve been unsettled by influential men who, getting high on attention, become addicted to one-on-one time with starstruck female students, preferring office hours to time at home. It fills me with a tremendous sense of responsibility in my new work as a teacher, and a deep sadness for so many who have been harmed by men who disgrace their position. And so this movie feels custom-made to weigh heavily on my heart. It’s scary because it isn’t just melodramatic — it’s truthful.

Perhaps it’s a personal thing, then, that this film moves me so deeply in its final act. By the end, I’m longing for Shirley’s release, for a righteous rant that delivers her from captivity. So the closing scene shakes me in a way I can’t connect to anything but Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut — it’s complicated, it’s perverse, and it feels exactly right. It’s going to keep me awake at night. But that’s a spoiler-ish conversation for another time.

I’m inclined to say that, given a script that’s can sustain the energy of her camera and the intensity she draws from actors, Decker might make a great film someday. I’m reluctant to hail Shirley as great, as it’s exploring emotional and psychological territory outside of my experience. (I’m eager to know what women—particularly women in higher education—think of this movie.) But I’m inclined to believe that Decker and her collaborators have achieved something meaningful and compelling here. Shirley is a powerful portrait of two lonely women — an artist of brilliant and burdensome vision and a young woman in search of herself — in a world of vain and harmful men. It is also an illustration of that most sobering of proverbs in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and she who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Shirley, an artist of genuine vision, is made wise by what she sees — and that wisdom wears her down until she cannot play along with the hypocrisy and vanity of her community. She’s a tragic and fascinating figure, and I’ll come back to learn from her sadness again.

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