Following a first-rate performance in “The Invisible Man,” which opened just before theaters shuttered, Elisabeth Moss returns as American horror-mystery writer Shirley Jackson in Josephine Decker’s follow up to 2018’s Sundance smash “Madeline’s Madeline.”
Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’ s novel, “Shirley” is not a biopic but a fictionalized version of the author’s life that takes place before the release of her 1951 gothic novel “Hangsaman.” The always reliable Michael Stuhlbarg plays Jackson’s academic husband while Odessa Young and Logan Lerman portray the young couple that moves in with the Jacksons as the film becomes an alternate version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Moss plays Jackson as a crusty old battle-axe wielding her sharp tongue at anyone who crosses her path. Usually controlling husband, Stanley Hyman (Stuhlbarg), is the recipient of Shirley’s barbs.
“To our suffering my dear,” Stanley exclaims as he raises his wine glass in a toast.
“There’s not enough scotch in the world for that,” Shirley retorts as she takes a swig of the hard liquor.
The setting is at a party being thrown by Stanley at the Jackson residence in Bennington, Vt., just as newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) arrive, the two have been invited to stay at the Jackson residence until they can find a place of their own. Fred has accepted a position at Bennington as a teacher’s assistant under Stanley, a professor of myth and folklore at the private liberal arts college.
Rose, a fan of Shirley’s writing, is eager to get to know her new host just as Fred can’t wait to pick Stanley’s brain. Easier said than done, as the newlyweds soon discover Stanley’s plan to turn Rose into Shirley’s new housemaid (seems they just lost another one) while keeping Fred at bay to make sure he doesn’t overshadow Stanley’s popularity with the young coeds. Infidelity runs amok in the small Vermont town.
The film takes place primarily in the Jackson home as Stanley and Shirley spar with each other while drawing Fred and Rose into the conversation. The “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” dynamic is perfectly suited to these four characters and well played by the actors especially Stuhlbarg who’s character’s jovial charm is a controlling mechanism that works on everyone except Shirley.
Odessa Young (“Assassination Nation”) delivers a standout performance as Rose and takes on a bigger role in Decker’s film as she begins to bond with Shirley while the men are away at Bennington. It would have been very easy for the character to fall to the wayside while the film turned its focus to Moss and Stuhlbarg, but as Rose begins to pushback against Shirley’s aggression the two come to an understanding and the film suggests, a possible physical attraction.
Logan Lerman’s Fred is the pawn in this game of minds as the actor known for strong performances in “Indignation” and “Fury” is just eye candy and the film’s weakest link. Lerman is good in the role, but his character is just here for an occasional romp at Rose’s initiation or to get neglected by Stanley.
The film’s focal point of course is the wonderful Moss with her cat-eye glasses who gives us a possible mindset of the reclusive Shirley Jackson who went on to pen one of the best ghost stories ever written, “The Haunting of Hill House.”
There is a look of mischief in Shirley’s eyes at all times, while the story based on Merrell’ s novel, suggests that the author has psychic abilities. She dabbles with tarot cards, has visions of the future and an uncanny ability to sense when someone is pregnant. Whether any of that is true is inconsequential, this is fiction and anyone familiar with the author’s work should get a kick out of Moss’s portrayal of the hard-drinking, take-no-prisoners Shirley.
You don’t have to be a fan of Shirley Jackson’s novels and short stories to enjoy the film thanks to the superb Moss in the title role. But if you’re familiar with her writing, the story takes on a special meaning as Shirley contemplates a new novel. She becomes fascinated with the disappearance of Bennington college student Paula Jean Welden who vanished while on a hike in 1946. Her story becomes the inspiration for “Hangsaman” and here Decker adds another layer to the mystery that involves Shirley’s husband.
“What becomes of your dear heroine?” asks Stanley as he offers Shirley a light.
“What happens to all lost girls?” she replies before taking a drag of her cigarette.
“They go mad” she whispers.
“Shirley” takes you down the rabbit hole with a mesmerizing Moss holding the reins of the drama, filled with humor, mystery, and tension as Shirley Jackson begins to resemble one of her characters.