Shirley Jackson was a real person, a writer best known for her twisted short story “The Lottery,” although the version presented in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” feels more like a character from one of her own novels. Featuring “The Handsmaid’s Tale” actor Elisabeth Moss in the title role, this queer, hard-to-quantify psychological study isn’t a biopic so much as a séance — a quasi-occult attempt to invoke the spirit of such a singular author, who reinvented a genre before her death half a century ago, via a film that seeks to channel her unsettling style.
If Jackson’s gift was to burrow her way into those corners of the brain one typically keeps under lock and key, then Decker seems like pretty much the ideal director to find the cinematic equivalent — and I say this as someone who’s had an almost allergic reaction to her brand of indie-movie doodles until this point. “Shirley’s” what we might call “a real movie,” even though it’s sure to confound that segment of the filmgoing public who likes their mysteries with no loose ends. By contrast, this is an itchy sweater that’s unraveling as you watch it, thanks in large part to Moss’s wild-eyed turn as the tortured genius.
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Decker — who’s been repeatedly drawn to experimental, semi-hallucinatory stories of what misogynistic midcentury shrinks once dubbed “hysteria” — has been doing this kind of subconsciousness spelunking with all her features, most recently in the funhouse maze that was “Madeline’s Madeline.” Whereas those slippery, deconstructivist thrillers felt as if they had been cobbled together in editing, “Shirley” benefits from Decker’s fragmented, broken-mirror approach, as well as the fact Sarah Gubbins wrote such a great script (adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel) to use as her template. So, rather than presenting another puzzle with important pieces missing, with this project, Decker provides more material than we know what to do with, and the resulting prism feels intellectually rewarding, no matter the angle from which we choose to approach it.
Opening in the style of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” with a thoroughly unprepared outsider approaching its reclusive monster by train, “Shirley” positions Shirley Jackson as a shadowy supporting character in the story that bears her name. She’s a figure of considerable fascination for the film’s young protagonist, an intelligent, semi-repressed (but also sexually adventurous) newlywed named Rose (Odessa Young), who’s bright enough to be an academic herself but yields to the demands of her husband Fred’s budding career — this is the early 1950s, after all — and the changes necessitated by a pregnancy the couple have yet to announce.
Clean-cut and handsome, yet oddly hands-off in the bedroom, Fred (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” star Logan Lerman, looking barely old enough to have finished high school) has taken a temporary job as a teaching assistant to free-spirited myth and folklore professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, who may have had Allen Ginsberg in mind) at a conservative liberal arts college in small-town Vermont. That’s a situation sure to remind some of the dynamic between Stuhlbarg and Armie Hammer in “Call Me by Your Name,” although the movie Gubbins and Decker more likely had in mind was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” wherein a naive young pair find themselves tossed like kindling onto the raging bonfire of a long-running marital row.
Rose is instantly drawn to Shirley. Beset with agoraphobia and a host of other unnamed conditions (the most obvious being a virulent case of writer’s block) that leave her looking like a haggard mental patient — or worse, a witch — Shirley seems to be having a good day when the couple arrives. Rose goes out of her way to compliment the writer on how “terrifically horrible” “The Lottery” made her feel. Showing the same caustic wit that has made her such a literary sensation, Shirley dismisses the interloper: “Betty, Debby, Kathy. You’re all the same to me,” she says in a Katharine Hepburn-like accent that comes and goes — excusable here since Decker’s characters are more interesting when they’re inconsistent.
Evidently, Stanley and Shirley have an arrangement — he can cheat, so long as he doesn’t hide these dalliances from his wife — and she has mistaken Rose for whichever co-ed he’s picked as his latest conquest. Why she should take Rose any more seriously remains to be established, though they’ll get the chance to know one another more intimately in the months that follow, since Stanley, concerned with Shirley’s declining health and sanity, invites Fred and Rose to share their close-to-campus lair (another Shirley-ism: “A clean house is a sign of mental inferiority”).
Rose’s responsibility is to help in the kitchen and with various chores, but she’s far too independent not to go putting her nose into Shirley’s affairs. While her husband’s distracted with the new job, Rose exerts a kind of individuality that’s too seldom afforded female characters: Rose would be one-dimensional window dressing in virtually any movie made at the time, whereas “Shirley” imbues her with a complex inner life and desires that can’t necessarily be distilled into words. The vignette in which Rose writhes in a patch of earthworm-infested mud, to cite one example, feels like some kind of forbidden erotic revolt — and a scene that would have been right at home in Decker’s earlier, earthy “Butter on the Latch.”
Though the sex with Fred is portrayed as being fairly frisky (Rose always initiates), there’s deliberate ambiguity in her increasingly sensual connection with Shirley, which neither of the men suspects. Or do they? “You’re hiding something,” Stanley senses. For his part, Stuhlbarg goes big in his portrayal of the boisterous professor, revealing both intellect and insecurity as the twin threads of his harmlessly flirtatious personality (Decker recognizes with appropriate revulsion how the era forgave gropey authority figures such hands-on behavior).
As Shirley’s most trusted editor and critic, Stanley desperately wants his wife to return to her writing, but he might not approve of the manuscript she’s undertaken — it will ultimately become Jackson’s 1951 genre novel “Hangsaman.” Her inspiration is the case of “a disappearing college girl,” which she enlists Rose to help her investigate. Certain clues point to Stanley, though there are so many rich mysteries simmering under “Shirley’s” surface that audiences may well find other themes more enticing. In a masterful use of her signature claustrophobia-inducing style, Decker employs Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s shallow-focus handheld camerawork and Tamar-kali’s anxious score (a crazy-making mix of string plucks and piano plunks) to wind up her audience, till that aforementioned sweater becomes a straitjacket, before revealing a terrific twist that will leave audiences debating all that’s come before.