Greetings again from the darkness. "Thrillingly awful". That's how Rose describes the feeling she had from reading Shirley Jackson's 1948 short story "The Lottery." It's also a likely reaction many will have to watching director Josephine Decker's (MADELINE'S MADELINE, 2018) mostly fictionalized biography of the author known for her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles. The film is uncomfortable to watch and challenging to process, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, we remain enthralled the entire time.
As the film opens, Rose (Odessa Young, ASSASINATION NATION, 2018) is on the train reading Jackson's divisive story. We gain some insight into her personality as she allows a sly grin to cross her face, and then gets frisky with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) in a train cabin. Soon they arrive at the home of Ms. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic. Shirley is suffering through a bout of depression brought on by writer's block, and though she's initially against the young couple staying with them, she slowly finds a use for Rose. It doesn't take long for us to realize everyone here wants something from the others. Stanley is worried about Shirley's mental stability, so he convinces Rose to take on the domestic chores. Fred hopes Stanley will bless his thesis so that Bennington College will hire him. Stanley seizes on Fred's ambition by having him take over some of his teaching load. Rose endures some harshness from Shirley, but the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley's new novel.
The new novel is "Hangsaman", which Shirley actually wrote years before this story is set. It's about the disappearance of a college student named Paula, and it's at this point where the visions and/or projections begin. Things get a bit hazy for us ... and for Rose. At times, Shirley is downright creepy. Are we watching something supernatural? Is she a good with or a bad witch ... or something else altogether? At times, Shirley appears to be unraveling - and possibly bringing Rose down with her. But then we hear another of the razor sharp verbal sparring matches between Shirley and Stanley. These are works of art. Stanley needling her just enough to inspire more writing. Shirley fires off cutting remarks as brutal as any wounds a knife fight might cause. It's an advanced course in the creative mind vs the pompous academic. Stanley understands that allowing her to become unhinged is all part of the process, and will likely lead to her best work.
Multiple dynamics between characters creates chaos for viewers. Shirley and Stanley have their gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven't even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley's disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation. There is a lot to take in - domestic life in the era of "little wifey", the strains of starting and maintaining a career, and the inner-demons of the creative mind. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity, and given the times, this should be much easier for the men.
Sarah Gubbins' first feature film screenplay is based on the 2014 novel "Shirley" by Susan Scarf Merrell. Again, this is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of Shirley Jackson's real life mixed in. Of course Shirley's and Stanley's four kids are nowhere to be found, allowing for more focus on the contrasting featured couples. In fact, Ms. Young's Rose is the perfect "opposite" for Ms. Moss' Shirley, both in looks and demeanor. It's impossible to miss the similarities between this and director Mike Nichols' classic WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That one had more yelling, but this one cuts just as deeply. One of the best ever onscreen jabs occurs when Stanley sourly describes Fred's thesis as "terrifically competent", and then adds in a disgusted tone, "There's no excuse for that."
Special notice should be made for the music and cinematography. Composer Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND, 2017) pierces us with music often limited to plucks of cello and/or piano, adding a near-horror element to the frightening interactions we are watching. And with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (WENDY, 2020 and VICTORIA, 2015) expertly captures the harrowing glares of Shirley and the bemused smirks of Stanley in close quarters. The camera work adds to the constant immediacy of each moment.
Shirley Jackson's most famous full-length work was "The Haunting of Hill House" (1959), which was adapted into director Robert Wise's 1963 film THE HAUNTING, as well as another version in 1999. Most recently, it was the source material for the very popular Netflix limited series in 2018. Ms. Jackson did suffer with anxiety issues and agoraphobia, and her writing influenced many who came along later. While Mr. Lerman is a bit short-changed, the other three leads are superb in this film that likely will have very little appeal to the masses ... you know ... those people who can't find pleasure in almost two hours of misery and a head-scratching ending. The end result is a story about Shirley written in a manner that we can envision it as one of Shirley's own.