Lots of actors can express contempt, but when Elisabeth Moss grabs hold of it, it’s special. Somehow she makes that basic emotion into something feral, as primal as a predator’s desire for blood. She reached this place in Queen of Earth, when her best friend’s boyfriend makes an insensitive remark about her late father and she goes nuclear on the guy: “People like you are the reason why my father had to die.” She’s back here in Shirley, a more conventional biography about the famously spiky American author Shirley Jackson that premiered last week on Hulu (after playing at the Sundance Film Festival last winter), and is it ever something to see and beware of.
The story is set in 1965 at Bennington College, where Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) arrive there for his new job as a graduate assistant to the acclaimed literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stanley is married to Shirley, a celebrated author who hasn’t left their house in months. The Nemsers quickly find they’ve stepped into the plot of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as Shirley immediately intuits that Rose is newly pregnant and asks Fred, “Is it yours?” Despite this, Fred arranges to have his wife work as the couple’s housekeeper, telling Rose to suck up Stanley’s unwanted sexual advances and Shirley’s verbal abuse for the benefit of his own career. The joke is on Fred when Stanley at last comes out with his assessment of Fred’s graduate thesis: “You know how insulted I am by mediocrity … Have you considered teaching at the high-school level?” Shirley eats this up, because when Stanley and Shirley aren’t busy torturing each other, they amuse each other with their cruelty to other people. I suppose that’s something to build a marriage on.
The research nerd in me feels compelled to point out that this story is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s heavily fictionalized novel by the same name. The Nemsers are entirely fictional characters, and Shirley is depicted taking the real-life disappearance of a Bennington student (also played by Young) and turning it into her novel Hangsaman, which was published more than a decade before this time period when this is set. London-born, Dallas-raised filmmaker Josephine Decker made a splash two years ago with her visually striking if diffuse experimental film Madeline’s Madeline, and she inserts some hallucinatory interludes that have Shirley identifying with the missing and likely dead girl. This prevents the movie from becoming too stagey, but historical fantasia doesn’t give us much insight into Jackson’s artistry. A cursory reading of “The Lottery” or The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle will clue you in that it was produced by a mind in torment.
No, see this movie for the acting. Stuhlbarg holds his own as a backslapping charmer who flaunts his extramarital affairs and complains first about his wife’s writer’s block and then about her locking herself away when she is writing. (Not enough? Stanley creeps on Rose until she has her baby, at which point he becomes visibly disgusted by her.) You won’t be able to take your eyes off Moss, though, as Shirley’s emotional squalor manifests itself in myriad physical ways such as compulsive eating, insomnia, and heavy drinking. She looks and acts like something that crawled up from a smoldering pit, speaking with a steel-edged patrician accent and curling her lips into a sneer at her husband’s colleagues and the students he’s screwing. You won’t soon forget the scene when Shirley presents Rose with a poisonous mushroom. “Split it with me,” she says, her eyes glittering. “It could stop our hearts.” How does she not have an Oscar nomination?
We shouldn’t overlook Young, the Australian actress whom you may have seen as a teen vigilante in Assassination Nation. Merely avoiding being overwhelmed by her more feted co-stars would be an achievement in itself, but she gives the film its backbone as Rose’s scarring encounter with these monsters shows her what an utter piece of crap she’s married to. The scornful look she gives her husband as they leave Bennington is Shirley’s glint of hope that this woman will strike out her own path as a writer without subsuming herself to a man. It proves to be enough of a hook for this acrid and bracing drama.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Odessa Young. Directed by Josephine Decker. Written by Sarah Gubbins, based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel. Rated R.