Shirley Jackson was known to get under the skin. Her most famous work, the short story "The Lottery," concerned a women who wakes to the fact that she is to be stoned to death in the village square. It still brings chills when you consider that a sleepy New England town could suddenly resort to communal violence.
Jackson's high-rent, gothic, horror novels, including the frequently adapted "The Haunting of Hill House," concern the emotional damage done to women in a society where they are valued more for their domestic skills than their brains. She once told an interviewer that she used supernational motifs in her novels as a way to counter the "psychic damage to which women are especially prone."
Josephine Decker's new film, Shirley, takes this conceit and turns it into a rather chilling portrait of women on the edge of sanity and uncomfortable in their own skins. The director is not doing a straight biography of the messed-up, agoraphobic Jackson, who seemingly found happiness only when she was behind a typewriter and abhorred public spaces. Instead, Decker, who directed the equally dizzying Madeleine's Madeleine, keeps the viewer off-guard and uncomfortable through use of experimental techniques such as extreme close-ups on parts of a character's face, blurred edges on a screen and cloudy, dreamlike images that do not always adhere neatly to the story. In Madeleine's Madeleine, Decker used such unexpected camera tricks to project the horror of a dance student being used and abandoned by her mentor.
In Shirley, Decker -- adapting a novel of the same name -- shows us the face of unhappiness in domestic circumstances that eat away at her characters' core. Elisabeth Moss -- having a stellar year in this film and the well-received The Invisible Man -- plays Jackson as cuckolded wife of a Bennington College professor, who is also critical of her work while puffing himself up like a rooster guarding his own hen house. She is under-confident and anxious, smoking cigarettes as if she needs them to breathe and sitting in a darkened room to map out and write her tales of psychic dread.
She soon befriends an impressionable young woman, a fictional character named Rose Nemser and played with elements of both sweetness and anger by Odessa Young. Rose's husband Fred (Logan Lerman) is a Ph.D. student at Bennington who is mentored by Jackson's husband, Stanley Hyman. Rose is enlisted to do chores and cook dinner for the couple, in exchange for the pair having a place to stay.
Young's newlywed had read "The Lottery" on the train ride to the Vermont town and is smitten by Jackson's work and by the writer herself. Jackson is at first abrupt and rude to Rose, wanting her to remain quiet and criticizing Rose for sneaking peeks at her latest work, a true-crime novel called "Hangsaman" that was eventually published in 1951. In that novel, a college student goes missing. Jackson intimates that she just disappeared from her mundane life.
Yet, the pair, so different in their outlooks on the world, soon come to an understanding borne of unhappiness. It seems that Rose married out of convenience when she became pregnant and that her husband, Fred, is no better in the faithfulness department than is Shirley's husband, Stanley. On the surface, both Shirley and Rose are trapped by circumstance, unable to move forward in their lives but doing their best to cope. Rose spends time in a dark room (dark rooms are by design in this movie) staring abjectly in a full-length mirror at her rounded belly and breasts, either in contemplation of her bodily changes or wondering how she got this way.
But there is more here than just a story of unhappy marriage. Shirley and Stanley seem to be testing their young charges, stealing snarky glances across dinner tables, cackling like goblins and walking the couple through fire. At times, the movie resembles a shrill-free version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with an older, venomous couple blowing down the lives of younger, more optimistic individuals who happen to cross their angry path. They are the big bad wolves of suburbia.
There is disappointment and a life lived under a knife's edge in Shirley. Stanley confides in Shirley that he will not suggest Fred for tenure at the college, calling Fred privileged and undeserving and his work mediocre. Fred initially curries Stanley's favor in obsequious ways, praising the already self-important professor. But he realizes later that he is a plaything, a piece of yarn to a swatting cat.
Rose is tested repeatedly by Shirley, who in a signature scene asks that Rose eat a poisoned mushroom in the field behind their house as a sign of trust or else a suicide pact. Rose, past caring for her own well-being, swallows down the forbidden mushroom. Shirley then eats one and laughs, telling Rose that she was only joking. But the scene is played intensely with angular images and closeups of Rose's sweaty and uncertain face, and Shirley's possible derangement makes the viewer wonder if this is all real.
At the film moves into its final third, Rose becomes more desperate, at one point running away to a cliff's edge before being pulled back by a worried Shirley. Both character's lives are at the precipice of life, holding onto their identities but not always succeeding in securing them in public or providing validation to themselves.
Moss's Shirley in in fact a strange brew, dressing in frumpy house dresses, wearing no makeup, and constantly hissing at anyone who wants to discuss her work. She tells one fawning admirer early in the film who asks about her latest novel that is is none of their business before retreating upstairs to her lair. Stanley, played as a prissy villain by Michael Stuhlbarg, tells Shirley she is incapable of writing her first novel due to her blanket of anxiety, and Shirley warily argues with him about it. Her insecurity seems to transfer to Rose, who becomes less certain of her own life with Fred as the movie progresses and more under the spell of Shirley, who possesses some form of supernatural bond for Rose.
In real life, Jackson was equally anxiety-prone and distraught about her own talents. She was known to be reclusive and to bat away attempts at interviews or speaking engagements before the public. She died an early death at age 48 from heart problems, further exacerbated by incessant cigarette smoking and heavy weight gain. She was a woman not comfortable in her own skin, and she paid her own price.
But Decker's film is more coy about Jackson's motives. Without giving much away, there are scenes near the end of the film that suggest and she and Stanley are of the same mind and spirit, happy to unleash their demons on others but able to coexist without fret or trouble. The truth is a bit ambiguous, but that is also part of Decker's intent: The ground can shift and marriages can change course, but there's richness to be found if you only know where to look. Sometimes, however, where you look can be a bed of brambles.