Director Josephine Decker (Butter on the Latch) takes on Shirley Jackson in a biopic titled Shirley, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrill. The film vividly captures the author with verve and although the story is not quite expansive enough to fill Jackson’s imagination, the director deserves credit for bringing the lioness author to the screen.
After the publication of her shocking story “The Lottery” in the New Yorker, Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) is trying to work on her novel about a missing Bennington student. Her routine is upended by the arrival of a hopeful student couple, Rose and Fred (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) Shirley is beside herself. She vows to stay in bed. Shirley’s professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) tries to be a bon vivant to rouse her spirits but to little avail.
Rose is fascinated by the reclusive writer whose fingers flutter on the keyboard like a murder of crows. Her shoulders are hunched, her face level with the keys as if she is connected to some strange machine of the dark arts. Gradually Shirley gives an inch and starts a conversation. A rapport develops. The author sees Rose as the protagonist in her missing girl novel. The pair go to the woods. Shirley pretends to bite a lethal mushroom and Rose is entranced. Together they talk about death.
Shirley, an agoraphobic, is convinced to attend a faculty party. She goes but it is a ghastly affair. The attendees are suspicious and sly. Shirley pours wine all over a yellow sofa, then she acts like a vampire tapping the arm of the hostess, presumably to draw blood.
She is not invited back.
The highlight of the film is Moss who as Shirley looks like one possessed. Her eyes dart back and forth. In one scene, she is spread on the floor, her legs and arms stretching as if to touch angels or demons. In front of her, a fire roars: the entrance to hell.
Stanley frequently tries to lighten the mood, fresh from work or a party ready to dance with ’50s jazz music. Stanley is the happy bohemian. He has young girls in mind. Shirley’s mood is frequently sour, her tone acidic and her tongue is forked, full of words that bite.
The author’s only restful moments are conversations with Rose. Perhaps Shirley can school her in the occult, to become a practitioner of a new imagination.
Also intriguing is the house itself: dark and cluttered, full of sound. It is a house of restlessness. It is unclear whether the sounds come from Fred, Rose or something unforeseen.
Even the kitchen walls crackle in discontent.
Moss is wondrous as the legendary author even though we are not given much beyond surly Shirley. No matter. She still manages to give her role magic. Everything is in the eyes and in the sudden giggle of glee, both sacred and profane.
Though we don’t get all of her, we certainly get a fleeting glimpse of the spiritual engine of Shirley Jackson, a practitioner of dark words who once wrote:
“I wrote of neuroses and fear and I think all my books laid end to end would be one long documentation of anxiety.”
To see Shirley is to see a sliver of this powerful creative person who left us great stories that hover in the ear whenever we read or recite them—the eerie music of sable and sunshine.
This film is part of the Tropic’s Virtual Cinematheque Series. Get tickets here and support the Tropic!
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