American horror writer Shirley Jackson is most famous for “The Lottery,” the short story that earned The New Yorker the most hate mail in its history. Readers were incensed by her portrayal of ordinary folks who, in the work of other authors, might represent a simpler, more wholesome time. Jackson wrote them stoning an innocent woman to death in a ritual harvest sacrifice. The brutal truths of human nature in Jackson’s work are unsettling. She peels back the veneer of polite society that we use to mask our secret inner darkness. But it’s just a story, right? No one really died because of Shirley Jackson. She was a gifted conjuror of imaginary horrors, not a monster in real life…or was she? This question lingers like a cold breath on the back of your neck in Shirley, a film adaptation of the 2015 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell.
Directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), with a screenplay by Joseph Jefferson Award winning playwright Sarah Gubbins, Shirley is a thrilling psychological drama about the titular writer, played with exquisite depth by Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale). In the film, Shirley struggles to write a novel based on the real disappearance of a local college student. Her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites his new teaching assistant, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), and his wife Rose (Odessa Young), to move in with them rent-free if Rose will take over all Shirley’s housework. The move is great for the Hymans, but it forces Rose, who’s pregnant, to put her education and career plans on hold to take care of the house and everyone in it.
Decker has shot the film in a hazy, surreal style, alternating between dream and nightmare. The film’s moody lighting and tense soundtrack, hand-held camera work, and 1940s setting build a gothic atmosphere. Moss, who’s had an impressive run in psychological thrillers like Invisible Man and Us, plays Shirley with an unpredictability and a feralness that leaves you wondering if she’ll bite into someone before the film ends. In Shirley’s most intimate moments, Moss dives into her tortured emotional sensitivity and creative genius. Throughout the film, Decker wisely capitalizes on Moss’s ability to say the most when her characters aren’t speaking.
The film and novel are filled with the gothic tropes that made Jackson famous. Merrell describes her book as “an homage to Shirley Jackson, and a kind of exercise in what it’s like to be around people who have frightening thoughts.” Shirley’s morbid obsessions and both Hymans’ predatorial instincts in conversation threaten to manifest as more than just talk. Their marriage may be the most unsettling vision of marital relations since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. They have an open marriage, but Stanley takes liberties with the rules they agreed to. He holds court at wild cocktail parties for academic types (and his mistresses). Despite Shirley’s entertainingly caustic wit, social anxiety has taken a heavy toll. Every local is interested in her—the town’s infamous curiosity. They approach her with fear and hate, rather than with empathy or connection. At one point, when Shirley can’t bear to join the Nemsers for dinner, Stanley lures her downstairs with “I didn’t ask you to behave at the table.” This earns a smirk from her before she lets herself, at dinner, verbally bat at Rose, who she has assumed to be one of his sexual conquests.
Young could easily have been overshadowed by her costars’ wild characters, but she rises to the occasion. When she first moves in with the Hymans, Rose is expected to play ingenue among monstrous housemates. The ideal wife of her time is uncomplicated, because complicated women require more from their husbands. Rose’s husband is too self-absorbed to give her what she needs, and on top of that, Stanley wants her to replace his own wife in domestic labor. But Rose is Fred’s intellectual peer, and she envies Shirley for being able to connect to her own husband on that level, and write freely without losing his love. When Shirley sees something in Rose that inspires the protagonist in her stalling novel, she begins to warm to the newlywed. They develop an alliance that flirts with romance, but Rose isn’t just transforming sexually. As she drifts deeper into dark fantasies inspired by the chaotic brilliance and pathos around her, she begins to disconnect from reality. Like in Jackson’s novels, madness is liberation from untenable circumstances in a man’s world. At one point, Rose casually knocks eggs off a table, one by one, with the perfect indifference of a cat.
It’s fitting to see an homage to a proto-feminist writer directed and written by women, and based on a novel authored by a woman. If Shirley Jackson could see the film from beyond the grave, she might just raise a spectral glass of scotch and smirk.
Shirley opens June 5 on Hulu, Amazon, Apple TV, and other streaming platforms.
By Susan Scarf Merrell
Published July 7, 2015