SHIRLEY – Review by Susan Granger
Now that the Academy is considering ‘streaming’ films, Elisabeth Moss could be an Oscar contender for her ferocious performance as mercurial writer Shirley Jackson, perhaps best known for her allegorical short story The Lottery in the New Yorker in 1948.
In the early 1950s, newlywed Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) Nemser arrive in Bennington, Vermont. Ambitious Fred has snagged a coveted position as teaching assistant for lecherous literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), the manipulative, domineering husband of Shirley Jackson (Moss).
Until proper housing can be arranged, they’ll live with Shirley & Stanley, doing chores around the cluttered, ivy-covered house. That job falls primarily to pregnant Rose who, instead of auditing Bennington College classes, cooks and cleans, watching Fred cavort among pretty co-eds.
Since Shirley is abusively agoraphobic, repelled by social contact, vulnerable Rose becomes her caretaker/companion, as Shirley voices the hope that Rose’s baby will be a boy, noting: “The world is too cruel to girls.”
Shirley is currently obsessed with researching a new novel (published in 1951 as “Hangsaman”), based on the real-life disappearance of Bennington student Paula Jean Welden. Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered? Or did she simply decide to disappear on a mountain hike?
Meanwhile, smarmy Stanley oozes intellectual superiority over “entitled” Fred, dismissing his dissertation as “derivative,” explaining: “Originality is the brilliant alchemy of critical thought and creativity.”
Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel and obliquely directed as a psychodrama by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), it’s unfocused, deliberately fragmented, pivoting around deception and betrayal.
Taking a page from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Shirley & Stanley brutally bait their hapless houseguests. And the music of Leadbelly – a.k.a. Huddie William Ledbetter – punctuates many scenes.
FYI: Shirley Jackson wrote six novels, including The Haunting of Hill House (1958) and We Always Lived in the Castle (1962). Although absent from the screenplay, Shirley & Stanley had four children.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Shirley is a slyly speculative, sinister 6, available on Hulu, iTunes and Amazon and in drive-in theaters.