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‘Shirley’ Review: Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

Elisabeth Moss gives a bravura performance as the horror author behind “The Lottery” in a compellingly cracked biopic

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in 'Shirley.'

Thatcher Keats/NEON

Expect the unexpected from this teasing psychodrama about Shirley Jackson, acclaimed horror author of The Lottery, a short story first published in The New Yorker in 1948 and a literary lightning rod ever since for its depiction of ritualistic violence in contemporary, small-town America. Until her death in 1965, at the age of 48 from heart problems brought on by smoking and weight gain, Jackson published over 200 short stories, two memoirs and six novels including Hangsaman (1951) and The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Still, it was The Lottery that established her as a social critic who liked to scare readers into stinging realizations about themselves. Resisting the usual biopic tropes, Shirley creates something far more perversely fascinating by inventing its own rules to reveal the author as the architect of her own fragile mental state. All praise to Elisabeth Moss, who brilliantly plays Jackson as a volcano on the verge of eruption, and director Josephine Decker, whose experimental Madeline’s Madeline reveled in leaving folks in a twist. With this trippy take from screenwriter Sarah Gubbins on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, which spins events from Jackson’s life into a thrilling blend of fact and fantasy, Decker is at it again.

Shirley shows us Jackson playing at being a Fifties faculty wife at Vermont’s Bennington College to her cheating professor husband Stanley Hyman, superbly played by  Michael Stuhlbarg as a bearded satyr in teacher’s flannels. To cool his wife’s bouts of hysteria, Hyman moves his young teaching assistant Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young), into the house. “I’m a witch, didn’t anyone tell you?” Shirley asks Rose. The author’s bouts with booze and temper have already cost the family a few housekeepers, and Rose bristles at being the next target. But her near-erotic attraction to Shirley and her writing — Young catches the tension perfectly — leads the two women to unite against the gender restrictions of the era.

Those issues are also reflected in Hangsaman, the novel Jackson was then taking through its gestation. Where does this vortex of charged female energy leave Fred, who’s also chafing against Stanley’s demands at work? It’s a setup straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf with the older couple playing “get the guests” as each line comes barbed to draw blood. No one is spared — especially not Fred and Rose, who are forced to explain the embarrassing circumstances of their “shotgun wedding.” Shirley hasn’t been outside her house for months when she escapes her writer’s block to attend a faculty party where goading questions about what she’s planning next induce a snappish response: “A little novella I’m calling none of your goddamned business.” Ouch!

It’s unlikely that Stanley had anything to do with a real-life Bennington student who disappeared on a mountain hike, but the implication lingers and figures in a subplot in Hangsaman. Hmm. There’s no avoiding the film’s sins of omission: Shirley and her husband had four children who are never seen or mentioned, all in the name of creating a hothouse atmosphere of emotions run amok (a deep bow to cinematographer Sturla Brandth Gróvlen for his handheld artistry). As Moss fuels the flames of conjecture and Decker explodes mid-century myths about a woman’s place, this psychologically-dense spellbinder takes a cue from Jackson’s novels and simmers with mystery and menace. The less revealed about the ending, the better. But you can bet Shirley has the last word.