Review by Harvey Karten for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Screenplay by: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Odessa Young
Reviewed from a critics’ link on 5/15/20
Opening: June 5, 2020
Running Time:107 minutes
What gives one person the impetus to become a psychoanalyst, another an optometrist, yet a third individual a teacher and a fourth a writer? In these cases consider the possibility that the optometrist had early onset myopia, was prescribed coke-bottle glasses, and is determined to help others by inventing thinner lenses; the teacher had unfortunate experiences with her own pedagogues and knows she can do better; and the psychoanalyst suffered from childhood anxiety and depression, spending long, creditable hours on the couch and hoping later to sit on a padded chair rather than the sofa. This last scenario could apply to Shirley Jackson, a prolific writer with 200 magazines articles to her credit, an impressive contribution of novels, and a home library with 25,000 volumes. She did not become a shrink but penned psychological/horror stories to exorcise her demons. One of her shorter novels, “The Lottery,” which became a short movie, is a hair-raising, nightmare-causing story of a bucolic region of farmers in which, to further the fertility of crops, the town holds an annual lottery of all residents. The “winner” of the lottery is sentenced to death by stoning, presumably donating blood to the fields. Jackson did not herself live in a farming community but rather in North Bennington, Vermont, the location in the early 1960s setting of the movie an all-girls’ college until 1969. She suffered considerable neuroses, even borderline psychosis, her anxieties, her agoraphobia that essentially sentenced her to her house for months as though a plague infested the outdoors. She may not have been cured of her psychological problems, but at least she could use them to create great art. And so she did.
The film directed by Josephine Decker, an actress and who as a director gave us movies like “Madeleine’s Madeline” (a theater director’s young actress takes her performance too seriously), is adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel by Sarah Gubbins, scripter for TV episodes of “I Love Dick.” The movie lifts off by Elisabeth Moss’s electrifying performance in the title role. Not only that: take a look at Shirley Jackson’s picture on Wikipedia or on Amazon books and you’ll find quite a likeness—except that Moss does not have the weight problem of her character which, together with Jackson’ chain smoking led to the novelist’s death from cardiac arrest at the age of 48.
While Moss carries the principal focus, Decker and Gubbins provide the film with an ensemble performance—three characters given about equal time to express their disappointments, their frustrations, their happy moments, in short, their personalities. Consider Shirley’s husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington where he enjoys sexual favors at the women’s college. He is extroverted, peering at the world though thick glasses with the black frames no longer fashionable in our times. He insists on originality, on creativity, exhibiting his persona by playing a record by jazz and folk musician Lead Belly, who died in 1949 and seems to be unknown to the bright young co-eds. At home, he shows his dismay with his wife’s habit of staying home, often skipping dinner to work on her stories, leaving him to dine alone as she would clack away speedily on her standard typewriter.
As though there were not enough drama in the household, enter a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” scenario when a young couple arrive, invited by Stanley to remain in the couple’s home. Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is nervous and pregnant, and her classically handsome husband Fred (Logan Lerman) are soon to incur the wrath of the residents. The young couple are regularly baited, but Fred is staying on, hoping to get Stanley to recommend him to teach English at the college. Though Rose is naïve and trusting, she is soon to find out that her husband is following the same path of infidelity as his new mentor. Among the barbs: Stanley has read the young man’s dissertation. At the dinner table he announces that the paper lacks originality and is mediocre. “Have you considered teaching at the high school level?” If that were not enough to make Fred bolt from the dinner table, what is?
Anyone who has seen Elisabeth Moss knows that she is among the best actresses of all generation. Her work on Margaret Atwood’s TV episodes “The Handmaid’s Tale” as June Offred Osborne, gave her the extra push to work for women’s causes and led to her telling an interviewer that it made her “a stronger woman.” She needs no dialogue in “Shirley” to signal her every emotion. Coiling like a snake, a fierce look at her husband and guests, she could keep you up nights if you were her guest. Rose is eager to leave this house, virtually haunted by its occupants, but nonetheless she is drawn to Shirley, considering her a friend notwithstanding the difference in age. It helps that she responds to Shirley’s sexual advances, their playing footsies under the dining table being one of the comic moments in the film.
And Stuhlbarg is no mere straight man to Moss’s manipulations. His is a formidable performance whether leading a group dance at the college dean’s party, barking at his wife to leave the house, or baiting the poor young man who has been effectively relegated to teaching high school. As for Odessa Young’s Rose, we can see how Stanley uses her to help his wife complete her latest book, which, in fact, is based on the author’s experiences with her husband and the young boarders. Write what you know.
The film appears to toy with two endings: one which results in Rose’s suicide, the other finding her sitting in the back seat of the car driven by her Tom-cat husband. Kudos to Tamar-Kali’s use of music, largely jazz tracks, and Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s lensing, making good use of the house’s interiors, the lively faculty party, and the rural pleasures of a state whose slogan, “Freedom and Unity,” is, judging by this movie, surely ironic.
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – B
Overall – B+
© Harvey Karten, Director, NY Film Critics Online