Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) bring to life Shirley Jackson, author of numerous novels and novellas, most notably The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. Jackson’s work was lauded by audiences and critics alike, her works in the horror and mystery genre especially. Shirley declined in health while still fairly young, her dependency on her anxiety medications, heavy smoking, and drinking all attributed to her death.
Not strictly a biography, but an interpretation of Jackson’s life. Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins adapts the novel from Susan Scarf Merrell, focusing on a period of time at some point after her short story The Lottery was published by The New Yorker magazine in 1948.
The story starts when a young couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) are invited to stay with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stanley is a professor at Bennington College in Vermont and Fred is his new assistant and aspires to be a scholar. The couple had arranged to only be guests at the house for a few weeks, but as the story unfolds, it becomes harder and harder for them to leave the house.
Stanley comes across as very jovial and controlling, ordering around Shirley and his houseguests with a creepy smile and a jolly swagger. The dynamic of their marriage is hard to decipher, Shirley is in the throes of depression when the couple arrive at the house and Stanley is busy with his lectures, walking around the house with crumbs in his beard. Because of the state of Shirley, Stanley asks Rose to help around the house, some cleaning and cooking. Rose had wanted to audit some classes and be around her husband on campus, but those desires would have to be put on hold.
As Rose sets about her new role as housekeeper she is woefully aware that she is sharing space with Shirley, who is prone to infantile taunting and demands. But the pair soon develop a relationship, one that can only be described as a hunter and her prey. Shirley begins to get an idea for a new novel and it seems that Rose has become her unwilling muse. Shirley only wants to write her new novel and it seems that her relationship with Rose compels her to write, she fantasizes about Rose as the protagonist in her story, with the lines of reality and fiction often blurring. While their husbands stay out most nights for drinks and late night indiscretions with the college co-eds, the women become somewhat reliant, no matter how unhealthy, on each other.
Decker fills the house with an atmosphere of paranoia and sexual tensions. Those tensions realized through disjointed visuals and a plucky score. The hallways and rooms in the house come alive, haunted by scattered and fragmented mind of Shirley Jackson, whose brilliance as a writer seemed to come at the cost of using everyone around her to make the story she is writing and the reality she is living coalesce.
Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young are terrific, Moss embodies Jackson in every way, from her striking resemblance to her unsavory attitude. Stuhlbarg steals his fair share of scenes and seems to be having a lot of fun. I just wish I had more fun watching.
2.5 out of 5