Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Here’s a review of another revenue-sharing movie for the week: Josephine Decker’s Shirley, a fictionalized glimpse into the life of Shirley Jackson. There are links to watch the movie that will support either the Northwest Film Forum or SIFF.
Even if you know just a little bit about Shirley Jackson (the author of The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman, it’s hard to think of better casting for the mid-20th century couple than Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg. These actors keep arresting your attention even if Shirley wanders along its path.
Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the movie concentrates on an academic year in the late 1940s. (The Lottery, published in The New Yorker in summer 1948, has just caused a sensation.) Hyman is a professor at Bennington, Jackson is a “faculty wife” and minor literary star; their unusual marriage is charged yet mutually supportive. But they are not at the center of the story. We meet the couple through the eyes of Rose (Odessa Young), the pregnant wife of Fred (Logan Lerman), a new hire at Bennington. Fred will be on the academic track (sucking up to his superiors and sleeping with students) while Rose is drawn into Shirley Jackson’s witchy, bespectacled orbit.
The sight of these two fresh-faced kids getting dropped into the Jackson-Hyman world (the four of them end up sharing the family mansion for a while, with Rose naturally relegated to housekeeping duties) makes the film feel like an extended riff on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The hosts bicker and party and seduce, as the young folk try to keep their bearings. The set up has its possibilities, although I confess to a personal prejudice here, which is that this kind of fictionalized warp on real people isn’t my favorite literary game, unless it’s, I don’t know, Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud solving crimes together.
But if the movie feels labored at times, it also offers its share of attractions. Moss notches yet another convincing exploration of the wobbly line between stability and craziness; not many actresses could convincingly convey a person capable of writing The Lottery. There’s a sequence with Jackson pulling herself together to attend the dean’s annual party (agoraphobia keeps her mostly at home)—where she eventually pours red wine over a beautiful couch—that Moss brings off with a nicely ambiguous sense of mischief and unbalance. Stuhlbarg, from A Serious Man and Call Me by Your Name, is just right as an academic beardo who fancies himself a satyr—and gets away with it. Most of the film is carried by Odessa Young, who brings more mystery to her role than it really deserves.
Director Josephine Decker previously did Madeline’s Madeline, an overheated piece that a lot of people liked. Shirley is an improvement on that, but its aggressive attack on the material nevertheless feels over the top—to say nothing of being quite a distance from the technique of Shirley Jackson, whose lucid, controlled style produced devastating results. In the film, Jackson is working on what would be her second novel, Hangsaman, inspired by the true story of a Bennington student who vanished in 1946. The idea of “missing women” is strong in the movie, nicely captured in our final glimpse of Rose, who appears to have mutated into something much stranger by her exposure to Shirley in the course of the story—a tantalizing glimpse of a woman who, if still lost, is at least lost in a different way.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.