In the early 1950s, a young couple arrive in a small Vermont college town and make their way to a creepy, decaying, ivy-covered manse where they are to spend the night. The house is not haunted. Rather, it’s roiled into chaos in the midst of a bacchanal presided over by its owners, an established and voluble college professor and his more sedentary, owlish wife, who’s just had what will become one of her most famous stories, “The Lottery,” published in The New Yorker. The new arrivals, the fictional Fred (also a professor) and Rose (whose college career is on hold), have been invited to stay for few nights, while Fred settles into his new position at Bennington, shadowing Shirley Jackson’s husband, the peacocky literary critic Stanley Hyman. Though Jackson is the better known today, at the moment of Josephine Decker’s Shirley, Stanley, for all his encouragement of his wife, is shown also to be the gatekeeper of her creative output, her most ardent fan, but also the powerful arbiter of whether her latest work is worthwhile, whether she’s “up to it” or not.
By this, Stanley may mean intellectually, but he’s also responding to Shirley’s seemingly pathological reclusiveness. What is never called anxiety, depression, or even agoraphobia keeps Jackson confined to the house, not writing. But with Fred and Rose’s arrival, Stanley essentially orders them, in the guise of invitation, to stay on for a while, instead of finding their own place, so that Fred’s “wifey” can care for Shirley, until she gets better. Nothing could be more important than Stanley and Shirley getting their respective work done. So Rose will cook and clean the house, fulfilling all the housewifely expectations that she’s just starting to realize she has little interest in fulfilling, and that she thought her husband would help her avoid. Wasn’t breaking tradition the foundation of their relationship?
Still, despite Shirley’s early prickliness, Rose accepts the assignment, in part because Fred needs Stanley’s support, but more because she’s smitten with Jackson, with the power of her personality and the violence of her imagination. The two traits come together at an early dinner, where Jackson, to Stanley’s delight, viciously probes Rose’s seeming innocence, ruffling the young couple into kitchenward retreat. But the enforced proximity between the two women eventually reveals Shirley’s own vulnerabilities and fears as she begins to develop her next book, Hangsaman, based on the true story of a young Bennington student’s mysterious disappearance.
Cherchez l’homme is the well-developed theme here, with Sarah Gubbins’ excellent, layered script (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell) working through numerous variations on the suffering imposed by patriarchal power structures at home and in the halls of academe, and countering these with the liberating solutions developed by two independent and competitive women confined together in a house. There’s more than a touch of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Stanley and Shirley’s sparring and manipulations of Fred and Rose, giving pleasure with substantially less cruelty and bleakness. Elizabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg provide excellently complex portrayals of Shirley and Stanley, and the twitchy cinematography and editing (risking a bit too much temporal and spatial disorientation in the final third) create an effective sense of psychic and domestic horror as a visual context for the film’s probing character studies.
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