'Shirley': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Deliciously naughty doings on campus.

Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg play horror author Shirley Jackson and her professor husband in Josephine Decker's unusual biographical portrait.

Two literarily inclined couples on a college campus give the foursome in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a run for their money in the bad behavior department in Shirley, a classy and nasty little item that gives some fine actors a chance to go at it with claws out and liquor bottles open. Long a staple of film and television drama, this sort of inebriated, one-location yak-fest is hardly the fashion these days, but there’s much for audiences of a certain ilk to relish here amid the refined noxiousness of manipulative goings-on among the educated class.

The place is Bennington, a liberal arts college in Vermont; the time is the early 1960s; and the subject, as so often happens, is infidelity. The spiders at the center of it all are a real-life couple, authors/educators/lushes Stanley Edgar Hyman and Shirley Jackson, the subjects of a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell now adapted by Sarah Gubbins, the creator of Amazon's canceled series I Love Dick. 

It all seems so terribly proper and civilized at first. The young and immoderately handsome Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) arrive on campus and are quickly induced to stay at the older couple’s house to help out — which might well help Fred move ahead in academia, even if he feigns an odd indifference.

But the main specimen — it’s not an inapt word — is Shirley. Very bright but perhaps even more clearly deranged, she’s deep into writing a book that’s giving her no end of trouble, to the point where it’s a valid question as to what will happen first: Will she finish her magnum opus or go completely bananas?

In the throes of her creative crisis, Shirley is exceedingly abusive to everyone, especially the new housemates. But the view that prevails is that Rose might be able to exert a positive influence and help Shirley through the completion of her latest book.

The behavior of the manipulative elders is nastily amusing through the early going; the older couple, like George and Martha in Virginia Woolf, are past-masters in the art of baiting their guests, and Rose is keen to escape the toxic environment of the large, cluttered campus home at the first opportunity. But Fred selfishly sees too much advantage to the arrangement to back out, a situation that unfortunately sidelines his character dramatically to a largely one-dimensional afterthought.

But the other three significantly take up the slack as things get knottier and more complicated in the house, which serves as the setting for virtually the entire film, a chamber horror story among the best and brightest.

Looking quite the mess, blowzy and wearing the nerdiest possible glasses, Moss takes off and runs with her wonderfully multifaceted and sometimes very funny portrait of a woman who is married to a complicated, domineering man but also has a host of self-generated neuroses, some no doubt genuine and others skillfully deployed to her own advantage.  

Perhaps the greatest pleasure the film imparts is watching this ever-adventurous actress toy with the other characters as well as the viewer as her odd impulses and aberrations come into play at key moments. There is also the low-boil suspense of whether she’ll be able to actually deliver and finish her book or, perhaps, end up like Jack Torrance in The Shining, with nothing at all to show for his hours at the typewriter. (The real-life Jackson’s most popular book was ghost novel The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1958.)

Stuhlbarg is also outstanding as the macho-man-in-chief, academia-style, as he cajoles, amuses, threatens, grandstands and otherwise exercises his assumed droit du seigneur in an atmosphere in which he who speaks loudest and longest most often has the last word. As in Virginia Woolf, the younger couple is overshadowed by the older one, but Young has some good moments as a vulnerable young woman being manipulated by old pros.

Gubbins’ script is tart, verbally lively and neatly constructed, while director Josephine Decker, in her first outing since her well-received 2018 Sundance entry Madeline’s Madeline, keeps a very tight rein on things, adroitly mixing in tension, innuendo and dark humor to keep the drama at a satisfying low boil most of the way. Despite the conventional household setting, the young cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grovlen, whose superb work on Wendy is also on view at Sundance this year, renders things visually stimulating all the way.

Production companies: Killer Films, Los Angeles Media Fund
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young, Steve Vinovich
Director: Josephine Decker
Screenwriter: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Producers: Sarah Gubbins, David Hinojosa, Simon Horsman, Elisabeth Moss, Sue Naegle, Jeffrey Soros, Christine Vachon
Executive producers: Allison Rose Carter, Cherilyn Hawrysh, Martin Scorsese, Alisa Tager
Director of photography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Production designer: Sue Chan
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: David Barker
Music: Tamar-Kali
Casting: Kerry Barden, Pau Schnee
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)

107 minutes