Oh, to fall under the murderous gaze of horror novelist and short story icon Shirley Jackson and survive.
That’s how Elisabeth Moss makes one feel about living with, being judged and bullied by the formidable, boozy and unstable creator of “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House” in “Shirley.”
Moss ratchets up the simmering intensity in this fictionalized “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” account of the later career of the celebrated queen of literary horror and suspense. “Shirley” is a clever biographical mystery, a movie of toxic excesses and contagious misery, where one bad marriage might doom another and where writer’s block is the most feared fate of all.
The script may be laced with literary tropes and dated writer and academic stereotypes, but Moss and co-stars Odessa Young (“Assassination Nation”), Michael Stuhlbarg (“The Shape of Water”) and Logan Lerman (“End of Sentence,” TV’s “Hunters”) make this moody, messy tale real, lived-in — fiction with the discordant ring of truth about it.
In actress-turned-director Josephine Decker’s film Jackson is trapped in a co-dependent marriage, wilting under writer’s block, practically housebound in Bennington, Vermont, where husband Stanley Hyman (Stuhlbarg) keeps her wine and liquor glasses full when he’s not teaching “Myth and Folklore” to the lily white coeds of Bennington College, circa 1958.
Stuhlbarg lets us see Stanley’s labored bonhomie, the contempt he hides behind a too-obvious veneer of charm. When new teaching assistant Fred (Lerman) and his wife Rose (Young) show up, Stanley’s trying even harder. He’s throwing a party, and this new couple is coming to stay with he and “Shirl” until they find a place of their own.
He’s too merry, too quick to trot out his jolly “How I met Shirley Jackson (in college)” story, dazzled by her writing even then. But another party-goer blows down the facade with a single indelicate question of the celebrated author in the family.
“So Shirley, what’re you writing now?”
“A little novella…I’m calling none of your goddamned business.”
Later, Stanley confides and begs Rose’s help with the house, as they’ve lost “another” housekeeper. He is needy and patronizing at the same time as he urges Rose to take on the tasks. “Shirley has these bouts,” is all he says by way of explanation.
Jackson is depressed, confined to her bed most days. “I’m going to get better. I promise. Starting TOMORROW.”
And the only appeal she can see in having these “strangers…SPIES” under their roof is the chance to bully, bait and psychically dominate poor Rose.
Rose has instant cause to regret her own husband’s halfhearted defense of her against this demeaning, sexist request.
She never hears Stanley lure Shirley to dinner with “I didn’t ask you to behave,” inviting her cruelty to their guests as he does.
“So Rose, you were telling us about your ‘shotgun wedding.'”
Rose doesn’t know that the unanswered ringing phone is one of Stanley’s student or fellow faculty paramours, gauche enough to call during dinner.
And she doesn’t know, at first, how touchy the brainy, brilliant bitch confined to her bed gets when asked about her work.
But as is the way of such stories, the new arrival soon is helping the blocked author research a new novel, one spun out of a real-life Bennington student’s disappearance on a mountain hike.
Young and Moss beautifully level-out and make real the uneven relationship that spins out of Shirley and Rose being thrown together. Lerman has little to play, the standard callow young academic. Stuhlbarg sparkles as Stanley, whose insecurity and resentments — Hyman was a literary critic and a rural academic, forever in his wife’s shadow — don’t wholly explain his own cruelty.
Director Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) folds in all the pieces of the plot almost haphazardly, and instead concentrates on character and mood — gloomy people mostly trapped in a gloomy house. The voice over narration about the story of the missing girl, “Paula,” changes voices — a clever conceit.
She gets a gloriously subtle turn out of Moss in the title role, tart and witty in a mild version of the plucked pronunciations of Bette Davis, depressed and resigned at the confinement of her fame.
“I read your story,” a fan enthuses.
“There have been several…”
Moss is so right in this part that we don’t have to see Jackson’s eyes roll or hear the stinging comeback she no doubt has in mind for that. She lets us feel it.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg and Logan Lerman.
Credits: Directed by Josephine Decker, script by Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. A Neon release.
Running time: 1:47