dir: Josephine Decker
I only previously knew a tiny amount about Shirley Jackson, and all of that was solely about her short story The Lottery, which encompassed an idea, or a version of American society so powerful that it’s been ripped off or echoed in countless novels and movies as diverse as The Purge through Hunger Games through anything that critiques the mentality of American group psychology and its perpetual need for scapegoats.
I didn’t know much about her life, so that wasn’t what pulled my attention towards seeing this. Admittedly it was the fact that Elizabeth Moss was playing the main role. As far as I’m concerned that’s reason enough to watch any movie.
Having watched this I now feel like I know even less about her, because surely this can’t be a definitive portrayal. It felt like watching an assortment of affectations, a bunch of clichés about writers, and an opaque story about how domesticity robs women of more than their time and effort that could better be applied in other areas.
Shirley (Moss) is struggling with her latest novel, which will go on to be Hangsaman. But when the flick starts off she’s struggling with the fact that she’s not even the main character in her own movie, named after her and all. The ‘real’ main character would seem to be Rose (Odessa Young), the new bride of an ambitious young English professor (Logan Lerman), who feels the need to suck up to the old jerk who runs the English department at Bennington, Vermont. So, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) wants to “help” out his wife’s writing by pretty much using Rosie as an unpaid servant, dangling the prospect of tenure for her husband, while having no intention of actually helping them out long term.
It doesn’t help that the flick is awkwardly and irritatingly filmed. Odd, obtrusively angled shots, repellent in their way, sometimes alternating between being too close to the subjects or off to the side to make everything feel off kilter. I’m sure it worked as intended.
The writer is housebound, agoraphobic, alcoholic and cannot stand people. She loves her appalling husband despite the fact that the old goat who is extremely full of himself keeps rubbing up against every female he can. What they make of Shirley’s various mental health issues the film reduces to Shirley’s resentments and insecurities arising from her husband’s numerous infidelities.
But that’s surely not going to happen to the young couple, surely? Rosie and Fred still have sex daily, all throughout her pregnancy too, so of course Fred isn’t going to follow in Stanley’s footsteps just to impress him, is he?
Is he fuck…
Stanley is a piece of work, but not much of an impressive one. He embodies all the worst qualities of an academic that one can imagine of the era, and though I have no doubt he was that much of a piece of shit, he’s not a particularly interesting piece of shit. His casual cruelty towards the young couple or his selfishness towards his wife under the guise of “looking after” her rings true but hollow as well.
All the same, for reasons that aren’t apparent for a very long time, Rose is fascinated by Shirley, and pretty much puts up with many forms of low key abuse just to work her way into her confidence. When Shirley attacks Rose, it’s to undermine her sense of self and her worth, by pointing out that she has given up anything meaningful about her own life in order to cater to the needs of her man. And, um, Shirley as well, though I guess she’s looking after her man by keeping Shirley and Stanley happy.
That is a bit of an impossibility, though, because Shirley and Stanley, for all their tensions and hostilities, are happiest only when they’re tormenting the young couple. There’s many a scene where either of them says something cutting, the recipient of the abuse leaves the room, they smile winsomely at each other, and then have an “adult” conversation. They are peers, they are not equals, but they have each other’s measure. These young people barely exist to them, which is kinda hurtful.
The centerpiece of the novel Shirley is working on has to do with the story of a girl at Bennington who went missing. Parts of the movie seem like tentative stabs towards an investigation by Shirley, and eventually Rose, into what actually happened to the girl. Shirley imagines her talking, imagines details of her life, but can’t see the girl clearly in her own mind even as she’s giving voice to her imagined thoughts. At first the girl is depicted as faceless, but she comes more clearly into focus when she can superimpose Rose’s face onto her. She, we are given the impression, is a lost girl, as lost or more lost than Rose.
But Shirley doesn’t really give a damn about her actual story. We get the impression that it’s building up to something, like, that a certain someone seduced the poor girl and dumped her when it became inconvenient, making the wider point that men, especially older academics who prey on young and naïve students, are fucking arseholes, but it’s not that profound a point. Plus Shirley is interested in getting into the head of the character she’s created, borrowing what she can from traits Rose inspires in her, only insofar as it helps her complete the novel. Beyond that, Paula, the inspiration for the character, and Rose, don’t really matter.
It is a compelling portrait of a character, I mean Shirley, but it’s an uncomfortable one. Elizabeth Moss can overact if she needs to, and she doesn’t at all here – her Shirley is a quiet, undemonstrative woman, who delivers her barbs with a whisper rather than a shout, but it’s mostly in the service of showing how much Stanley has stolen from her. And while he relishes the acclaim that he gets somehow for her writing, despite the fact that people still remember the name Shirley Jackson, and no-one except a few dozen women’s grandmas from Vermont remember Stanley’s name, and perhaps not fondly, theirs is an unpleasantly codependent relationship.
Rose and Fred’s relationship is less interesting. Fred doesn’t do much of anything other than stuff offscreen where he’s, I dunno, a serial killer or something, and Rose spends most of her time mooning after Shirley. It’s strongly implied, as Shirley is inducting Rose into her occult ways, that there is attraction there, and I think it’s implied at other points that they became lovers, but that somehow seems imagined more than actual? Shirley seems way too self-involved to give that much of a damn about anyone other than her own book. She also seems resentful of Rose’s pregnancy, which seems at odds with the fact that, by this stage of her life, Shirley had had four kids. Maybe having that many kids makes a person even more resentful of pregnant ladies?
There's also a strange scene with a pack of tarot cards, which somehow has three Hanged Man major trump cards in the deck. That's not... a thing? Did she dream it, did I dream it, is it meant to be a fantasy sequence in the flick, either of Shirley's or Rose's, or did they not know or care that you only get one Hanged Man in any pack?
Seems…strange. Much is made of the unease with which people greet Shirley’s existence, akin to the unwelcoming and paranoid townsfolk of many a Shirley Jackson story. Others praise Shirley, the few who get to spend time with the shut-in, for the unsettling nature of her writing, drilling down as she does into people’s primal fears, to which Shirley is mostly dismissive. People’s praise doesn’t do much for her, seeing as she, like every writer worth a damn, always fears the work is slipping away from her until the very end when the ‘thing’ is out in the world.
But she does crave Stanley’s approval, it’s the only thing she lives for, and, coupled with the strange ending, which includes a bunch of stuff that is perhaps imagined more than actually happening, and you could be forgiven for wondering whether the people that made the film actually like Shirley Jackson or not. It’s not a hit piece, per se, but it doesn’t exactly convey why Shirley Jackson mattered beyond her surly and paranoid ways.
If it inspires people to pick up her books and short stories, and books of her short stories, I guess that’s a good thing. On the other hand, when I see a biopic where the lead actor is also a producer, I cannot help but think “Oscarbait”.
Of course, that was before the virus plague shut the cinemas down, and all these “quality” flicks started being unceremoniously dumped on streaming services, making them easier to watch for those of us interested enough, so who knows if enough people will get to see this for it to matter. It’s well acted by the actors that matter, there’s no doubt, I just don’t feel like I learned much of anything about these people that needed knowing. And as for the toll that domestic duties and parenting take on women, I’m a hundred per cent behind you on that sister, but the real point of the flick seemed to be: to avoid drowning in domesticity, find yourself a sucker to exploit, and go do your thing.
You know, like men have been doing for centuries, except in this case it’s Shirley availing herself of the sucker.
It does have such a happy ending, though. Such a happy ending. I’m not being sarcastic. For a flick that for so long was mired in this molasses like atmosphere where everyone is trapped and no-one can leave, the ending is suspiciously upbeat. At least for the two characters that matter. They dance so happily together, that I thought I was watching a different movie.
6 times who knew horror writers and book critics could be such arseholes out of 10?
“If it was awful, that would be something, but to be perfectly competent, that I cannot forgive.” – it does seem quite unforgivable - Shirley