When “The Lottery” was published in The New Yorker in 1948, it provoked more letters than any piece of fiction in the history of the magazine. In the decades since, Shirley Jackson’s unnerving allegorical tale of ritualized small-town cruelty has spooked and intrigued countless readers, including many who first encountered it in a high school English class.
At the beginning of Josephine Decker’s “Shirley,” a young woman named Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), reading the story on a train, has a different reaction. Strangely aroused by the power of Jackson’s writing, she drags her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), into the lavatory for sex. The two of them, as it happens, are on their way to Bennington, Vt., where Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) lives with her husband, the literary critic and campus lech Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).
It’s supposed to be a temporary arrangement. Fred, a bland and ambitious young scholar, has been hired to assist Stanley with his classes. He and Rose, who is in the early stages of pregnancy, plan to stay just until they find their own place. But the young couple, like characters in a dark fairy tale, find themselves trapped in a spooky, ivy-covered house full of menace and enchantment. The viewer, meanwhile, spins through a whirlwind of psychological horror and erotic implication. It’s equal parts term paper and gothic nightmare.
“Shirley,” adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, will never be mistaken for a biopic. That is all to the good. Jackson, the subject of an excellent recent biography by Ruth Franklin, is much too interesting to succumb to the dull, sentimental moralizing of mainstream moviemaking. Instead, Decker and Moss approach Jackson as if she were a character in her own fiction, which is to say as an object of pity, terror, fascination and awe rather than straightforward sympathy. Shirley is a mystery and a monster, and “Shirley” is at once a sincere tribute and a sly hatchet job.
Stanley, a prancing intellectual hobbit, is nasty to Fred and creepily nice to Rose, but his bullying and groping are a sideshow. The dominant force in the household and the movie is Shirley. As she works feverishly on her next novel, “Hangsaman,” she casts an almost literal spell on Rose, bedeviling her waking hours with tantrums and haunting her dreams. “I’m a witch,” Shirley proclaims, and it doesn’t seem like metaphor or hyperbole. She guesses the secret of Rose’s pregnancy by looking at her face. Rose, trembling between fear and lust, becomes Shirley’s nursemaid and her muse, her secret sharer and her prey.
Shirley imagines Rose — and Rose imagines herself — as the Bennington student whose disappearance figures in “Hangsaman.” Decker and the cinematographer, Sturla Brandth Grovlen, blur the boundaries of realism, interweaving domestic drama and campus sex comedy with scenes of fantasy, so that by the end we are not sure whose hallucination, or what kind of experience, we are witnessing. At times the academic power games Shirley and Stanley play with Rose and Fred evoke Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” At other moments the volatile connection between Rose and Shirley recalls the fraught creative mentorship in “Madeline’s Madeline,” Decker’s 2018 film about a teenager in thrall to the charismatic leader of a theater company.
Like that movie, this one posits a link between creativity and mental disorder. Shirley is a demonic genius, and also the modern incarnation of a Victorian madwoman. Her brilliance is hard to separate from her instability, and her eccentricity is treated as something pathological.
One notable liberty that “Shirley” takes with the biographical record is to make Jackson and Hyman childless. In real life, they raised four children, and some of Jackson’s most popular and lucrative writing consisted of articles and stories about parenthood and everyday domesticity published in women’s magazines. In removing this thread, and making the unliterary, uneducated Rose (who dropped out of college to marry Fred) an emblem of fertility, the filmmakers impose a stark separation of roles on Jackson that she herself defied.
Rose, cooking and cleaning as her belly swells, stands in archetypal contrast to Shirley, a female Faust who has purchased her artistic power at enormous cost. They are both victims of a hypocritical, repressive, male-dominated world, though the actual men in their lives are weak, preening mediocrities. That fact, and the libidinal current that runs between the women, are the most potent and convincing aspects of “Shirley.” Moss, brazen and witty and seeming to push herself to the very edge of control, is a galvanizing presence, convincingly wild even as she’s trapped in a hothouse of sometimes dubious ideas.