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With: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg
Written by: Sarah Gubbins, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Directed by: Josephine Decker
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images
Running Time: 107
Date: 06/05/2020

Shirley (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Lottery Thicket

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Speaking of horror, the new Shirley offers a story about the author Shirley Jackson, who is best known for her incendiary short story The Lottery as well her great novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

In reality, Shirley is really only about 25% about Jackson, as it's really the story of four characters whose relationships with each other begin to decay like a forgotten corpse.

In the story, Rose (Odessa Young) and her husband, young teaching assistant Fred (Logan Lerman) are on their way to Vermont, where Fred will be working with professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).

They are also invited to temporarily stay in Stanley's home. Stanley happens to be married to Shirley Jackson (an amazing Elisabeth Moss, perfectly cast).

On the train, Rose reads The Lottery and is inspired to drag her husband to the restroom for a quick shag. Indeed, she's far more sensuous and adventurous than her unremarkable husband. He, however, doesn't know that she's pregnant, a fact that Shirley sniffs out as soon as the two women meet.

Shirley is, apparently, prone to various "spells." She never leaves the house, wickedly insults everyone at the dinner table, and wrestles with various other neuroses, but at the same time, there's a genius, and a twinkle, to her.

It's not long before Stanley awkwardly asks Rose if she'd like to be their maid, in exchange for further free room and board. Rose is quietly insulted, but at the same time, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Shirley.

Over the rest of the story, we get philandering, flirting, drinking, hysterics, parties, arguing, verbal attacks, and more. All the while, Shirley clacks away at what will become her 1951 novel Hangsaman.

Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins — who adapted a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell — and director Josephine Decker (Madeline's Madeline) both cite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as an influence, but thankfully Decker's woozy, bleached-out direction brings down the shrill pitch of that movie, making it more carnal and less heady.

The characters play at intelligence, and Stuhlbarg especially has fun plucking at his ten-dollar dialogue, but the real point to the story is what Jackson regularly wrote about: the squirmy things within humans that go beyond reason.

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