Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss as Stanley Hyman and Shirley Jackson
Where do we find entertainment these days? On our laptops and in our living rooms. The streaming options are overwhelming — and not always easy to sort through. So, in this weekly feature, I review a movie or series that might otherwise be easy to overlook.
At midcentury, Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) accompanies her professor husband (Logan Lerman) to Bennington College, where he’s secured a job. The young couple boards with older prof Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), who recently became a literary celebrity for her dark short story “The Lottery.”
At Stanley’s urging, pregnant Rose takes over the domestic tasks of the household for Shirley, who is depressive, borderline-agoraphobic and struggling with her next novel. Meanwhile, Stanley enjoys his pick of a “harem” of adoring female students. Shirley knows he’s unfaithful, and wicked barbs fly between the pair.
At first, Rose is repelled by Shirley’s sharp tongue, but she soon becomes fascinated with the older woman’s fertile imagination and general witchy aura. Together, the two investigate the real-life disappearance of Bennington student Paula Jean Welden on the Long Trail, which inspired Jackson’s novel Hangsaman (1951). Will Rose grow from this partnership, or will she end up becoming another lost girl?
Will you like it?
First things first: No, Shirley wasn’t shot in Vermont (Vassar College stood in for Bennington), and no, it doesn’t hew closely to the biography of one of Vermont’s most famous writers. Loosely adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, the screenplay by Sarah Gubbins revises the timeline of Jackson’s life and makes her childless — quite a change, considering that the real Jackson wrote prolifically about raising her four kids when she wasn’t crafting her brainy gothic tales. This isn’t a biopic so much as fan fiction.
Courtesy of Neon
Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley
Steamy fan fiction, too, with an indie-movie gloss. The opening scene finds Rose reading “The Lottery” on the train to Bennington. The scenario of small-town stoning apparently gets her so hot and bothered that she grabs her husband, and soon they’re getting busy just out of sight of their fellow passengers.
Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) gives the whole movie a dreamy, quasi-mystical eroticism that is easy on the eye but harder for the brain to process. With no backstory or discernible personality, Rose feels like an empty vessel; frankly, it’s not always clear why Shirley gives her the time of day.
Yet Moss’ star turn manages to redeem the film, for all its frustratingly mannered aspects. Alternately socially awkward, snarling and seductive, with a sly wit she deploys like a razor blade, this Shirley is utterly believable. Moss and Stuhlbarg have a compelling marital rapport, too: While Stanley plays the jovial host, Shirley’s creativity is fiercely private. When these two spar, Shirley throws off sparks.
Decker seems to be trying to craft an atmospheric fable about feminist mentorship with a dash of sapphic desire — a good enough idea, but sabotaged by the blandness of its nominal heroine. I found myself wishing the pretty young houseguests would leave already and allow me to spy on the deep dysfunction of the older pair in peace.
If you like this, try...
The movie offers a detailed recreation of Jackson and Hyman's North Bennington home, but you can see it for real in this Stuck in Vermont video, plus hear from Jackson's youngest son, Barry Hyman.
Adaptations of Jackson’s work have been hit or miss, but Robert Wise’s original 1963 The Haunting (rentable on various services) is superlative, and Stacie Passon’s 2018 We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Tubi; rentable on various services) is decent, with a fine performance by Taissa Farmiga as the unstable narrator Merricat. I'm not a fan of Netflix's "The Haunting of Hill House" series, which is essentially a riff on some motifs from Jackson's novel of the same name, but if you can accept that it betrays the very spirit of that novel, it has some cool and creepy moments in its own right.
I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House (Netflix): Oz Perkins’ 2016 film about a paranoid nurse caring for an elderly horror novelist plays like an homage to Jackson’s work, suffused in her combination of creepiness and dry wit.
Agatha (rentable on various services): Like Shirley, this 1979 film about Agatha Christie’s brief disappearance in 1926 combines biopic elements with mystery, featuring an acclaimed turn by Vanessa Redgrave.