(director: Josephine Decker; screenwriters: Sarah Gubbins/from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrill; cinematographer: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen; editor: David Barker; music: Tamar-Kali; cast: Elisabeth Moss (Shirley Jackson), Michael Stuhlbarg (Stanley Hyman), Logan Lerman (Fred Nemser ), Odessa Young (Rose Nemser, Paula), Steve Vinovich (Henry); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Sarah Gubbins, David Hinojosa, Simon Horsman, Elisabeth Moss, Sue Naegle, Jeffrey Soros, Christine Vachon; NEON; 2020)
“Elisabeth Moss is perfectly cast for the part of the neurotic horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Actress-turned-director Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”/”Mosaic”) directs this experimental film–a psychodrama (trying to invoke the spirit of its bitchy author heroine), that’s purposefully executed in fragments. It’s adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel. Elisabeth Moss is perfectly cast for the part of the neurotic horror and mystery writer Shirley Jackson.
The colorful Shirley Jackson was a great writer of many short stories and of six novels, including the following: “The Haunting of Hill House,” “We Always Lived in the Castle,” “Hangsaman,” “The Bird’s Nest,” “The Sundial,” and her best known, the twisted short story on the ugliness of human nature, called “The Lottery,” that appeared in the New Yorker in 1948.
In 1950 the newlyweds, the pregnant Rose (Odessa Young), a fictional character, and the ambitious and callow career-minded Fred (Logan Lerman), come to Bennington, Vermont, where Fred, with his recent Ph.D., is employed by the elite women’s college as a teaching assistant to the flawed but free-spirited literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). He’s the domineering, insecure and smarmy husband of his agoraphobia suffering writer block wife Shirley Jackson (she doesn’t leave the house for long periods). The unconventional literary couple have an understanding that he can cheat, so long as he doesn’t hide these affairs from her. The Lerners, with Rose pregnant, take residence in the couple’s house in North Bennington, near the campus, and Rose somehow maintains a good relationship with the difficult to get along with Shirley by being the housekeeper, research assistant, confidante and possible lover.
Shirley keeps busy researching a new novel, one that’s published in 1951 as the “Hangsaman.” It’s based on the real-life disappearance of Bennington student Paula Jean Welden. It ponders the following: Did she commit suicide? Was she murdered? Did she just disappear on a mountain hike? It also asks if her cheating husband could be implemented in the disappearance, as it points out certain evidence against him.
Shirley died in 1965, at the age of 48 from heart problems. The couple had four children who are never seen or even mentioned in the film, which might be as odd as the film’s twist ending.
It’s a wonderful film about a gifted writer with big mental problems and a healthy case of contempt for society. The film flashes its own literary sensibilities in its intelligent script. By dramatizing a fictionalized “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” account of the couple’s bad marriage and using Shirley’s hysteria to open up thoughts about issues always pressing women, the film seems to be having some wicked fun showing off Shirley’s sharp tongue and indifference to societal conventions. Thank you Elisabeth Moss for delivering the goods!
REVIEWED ON 6/10/2020 GRADE: B+