Even though “The Lottery” has always been one of the most anthologized American short stories, Shirley Jackson’s literary reputation has appreciated greatly in recent years. She had her first Library of America edition in 2010 and a second will pub in a few months. There was a happier side to her persona that wrote cheerful motherhood memoirs, but what fun is that? Instead, it is the dark side of Jackson—the one that suffered from depression and was fascinated with the macabre—that is the focus of Josephine Decker’s Shirley, which opens virtually/on VOD this Friday.
Jackson’s husband, literature professor and jazz critic Stanley Hyman truly believes in her talent, but in most other respects, he is a deeply problematic husband. Granted, she is rather difficult to live with herself at this time, because her writer’s block is apparently manifesting itself as depression and perhaps even agoraphobia.
Supposedly for Jackson’s sake, Hyman invites Fred and Rose, a grad student and his quite pregnant wife to stay in their North Bennington home. The way he pitches it, Rose will help with the cooking and house chores, while he will help Fred with his thesis. Of course, he has no intention of holding up his end of the bargain. Yet, despite her initial hostility, Jackson reacts well to Rose’s company. In fact, she even helps research Jackson’s next novel, Hangsaman, whose inspiration, Paula Jean Welden, a Bennington coed who mysteriously disappeared, deeply resonates with the younger woman.
Based on Susan Scarf Merrill’s novel, Shirley is not exactly a thriller and it certainly is not horror, but it has conspicuously dark psychological elements that will still interest genre fans, along with the portrayal of Jackson herself. Elisabeth Moss plays her to the hilt and them some, veering from the shrewdly observant game-player (with possible supernatural powers) to the Bronte-esque mad-woman-in-the-attic. She is gleefully over the top, which is great fun to watch. Likewise, Michael Stuhlbarg is absolutely insufferable, in a loud, boisterous, partially self-aware kind of way, as Hyman (in this film, he really gives jazz and blues critics a bad name).
Admittedly, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman are supposed to be young, bland, and dumb playing Rose and Fred, but gee whiz, are they ever. It is like watching an all-star team constantly scoring against a rag-tag group of bench-warmers. After a while, it’s just not fair.
This is definitely Decker’s most grounded film to date, but she still leaves ample room for interpretation. Regardless, the structure of Sarah Gubbins adapted screenplay clearly provides some helpful discipline, so do not be put off by Decker’s name if films like Butter on the Latch did not thrill you to your core.
For better or worse, Shirley whole-heartedly confirms the stereotype of all great writers being angst-ridden neurotics. This is a fascinatingly crafted but unbalanced composition, perhaps reflecting the perception of its subject. It intrigues more than it satisfies. Primarily recommended for fans of Jackson and Moss, Shirley releases virtually, on VOD, and at select drive-ins (but it is hard to envision it playing such venues) this Friday (6/5).