‘Shirley’ Role-Plays Women as Rivals, Victims, Sisters

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in 'Shirley.' (Courtesy NEON)

Shirley Jackson’s chilling “The Lottery” is one of the most anthologized short stories in the American canon. Josephine Decker’s tantalizing and piercing film, Shirley, begins in the immediate wake of the story’s 1948 publication in The New Yorker, with Jackson in a fugue of depression.

To its great credit and our greater reward, Shirley (now available via VOD) has a whole lot more on its mind than yet another overwrought depiction of the torment of the creative process. In fact, the title is something of a red herring, because the primary protagonist—whose journey is the most wrenching, profound and emblematic of the myriad constraints on women (then and now)—isn’t Jackson but Rose Nemser, the young wife of a teaching assistant.

Indeed, Rose is the first character we meet, on a train to Bennington College with her ambitious husband Fred. He’s the new hire of Stanley Hyman, a seductive literary critic-cum-professor at the Vermont liberal arts school and Shirley’s husband. Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) are eager and hot, perhaps more in lust than in love, a stark contrast to the cerebral, cryptic dynamic they encounter in their older, accomplished hosts.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in 'Shirley.' (Courtesy NEON)

Shirley skillfully keeps us off balance along with Rose, who is half-pressured, half-charmed into the roles of housekeeper, cook and Shirley’s sitter as the writer does battle with a novel. Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is maniacally clever (she divines instantly that Rose is pregnant) and unhesitatingly brutal (she surprises Fred with that news over dinner), and we perceive her initially as a force of evil who channels her writing frustration into exultant torment of the neophytes living under her roof.

It would be glib to compare Rose’s pregnancy with Shirley’s struggle to birth a novel. Certainly we are encouraged, at least for a while, to see Rose as an icon of innocence (even a tabula rasa, perhaps) and Shirley as an agent of darkness. Happily, the idea that women sabotage each other isn’t the moral of the story, but the starting point.

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In short, Shirley is one of those wonderfully surprising movies that widens and deepens with every scene. It is a veritable fever-swamp of plots and subplots. I don’t mean narrative threads but rather the machinations and motivations of three strong, smart characters (Rose, Shirley and Stanley, played with verve and brio by Michael Stuhlbarg at his most manipulative, enabling, lecherous, possessive and protective) who realize they’re at risk of losing their autonomy.

To put it another way, if you are teaching a master class in passive-aggressiveness and need a tutorial for the syllabus, Shirley will do nicely. Up to a point, thankfully.

Logan Lerman and Odessa Young in 'Shirley.' (Courtesy NEON)

Sturla Brandth-Grovlen’s floating camerawork keeps us in a state of disorientation and potential peril, while Tamar-kali’s spare, cliché-free score makes every string note count. As Rose’s relationship to Shirley evolves, by turns, to assistant, accomplice, collaborator and more—and the novel takes shape as a haunting litany of female alienation inspired by the recent disappearance of a female undergrad—the film subtly shifts from Northern Gothic (with a fleeting whiff of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) to postfeminist affirmation.

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Decker’s masterful orchestration of every tonal shift draws us ever deeper into Rose’s various early-1950s awakenings, while implicating us in the chauvinistic rules and assumptions that were and still are (albeit to a lesser degree) ingrained in our society—even in an ostensible haven of intellectual exploration and liberal philosophy like an exclusive private college.

Decker is abetted by the exemplary adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel by Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick, Better Things), which evokes rather than declaims, and allows every ambiguity and mystery to hover, percolate and unsettle.

Elisabeth Moss gives a typically egoless performance as the caustic, arrogant and insecure Shirley Jackson. Moss never chews the scenery—although she can slay everyone in a five-mile radius with a line reading—and conveys a remarkable breadth (from dominating to conspiratorial, from erotic to ruthless) in her interplay with Odessa Young.

Young, as Rose, is the beating, breathless heart of the film. At the same time, the Australian actress recognizes that she’s in a chamber drama that requires the voices to overlap and mesh. When her solo comes, she is clear and loud.

‘Shirley’ is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images. Spoiler alert: The novel that Jackson is laboring on is ‘Hangsaman’ (published in 1951).