Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) is precisely the type of writer you’d expect to meet if you’d read one of her stories: Distant, acerbic and drunk.
Her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), also fits the mold. He’s a college professor with a bushy beard, dark-framed glasses and elbow patches on his tweed jacket. He’d undoubtedly smell of cheap cigars if Shirley’s cigarette smoke didn’t permeate every article of clothing they own. Then again, in 1950 Bennington, Vermont, everything smelled of stale cigarette smoke. Stanley’s students probably didn’t even have to pinch their noses while improving their grades.
Yes, Stanley is one of those kinds of professors. Shirley knows, naturally, and she hates it. There’s a hint that they might have an open relationship, or at least discussed one once. But there’s also a hint that their open relationship is a one-way street.
Written by Sarah Gubbins and directed by Josephine Decker, Shirley — playing CU-Boulder’s International Film Series virtual theaters starting June 5 — is a gothic bio-pic, one that relies more on impression than it does information.
The crux of the story revolves around Shirley’s mental state as she undertakes a new project, Hangsaman, a novel about a lonely college freshman who goes missing. Though Shirley knows little more about the missing woman save for a 250-word clipping from the newspaper, she understands her completely. Ditto for Rose (Odessa Young), the young, pregnant wife of Fred (Logan Lerman); Hyman’s teaching assistant and carousing buddy.
There are echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the relationships between Shirley and Stanley and Fred and Rose — the drinking, the fighting, the frustration of growing old with little to show. But as Shirley progresses, the story takes on the atmosphere of one of Jackson’s stories.
Working with cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and editor David Barker, Decker creates unstable spaces and shifting frames. Shirley and Rose’s mental states are depicted through shallow-focus, a never-steady camera and jagged cutting. Most of the images cut from one close-up to the next. The effect is suffocating and rocky, but they also get in the way and blot out the performance. Moss excels as a woman sorely in need of a partner and not a Svengali plying her with booze and governing her writing. Stuhlbarg is pitch-perfect as a man loveable and disarming one second, controlling and creepy the next. Toss in a swaying camera into the mix, and it doesn’t add anything, it just underlines.
It doesn’t help that Fred and Rose never quite rise above stock and trade ciphers. Sexually frustrated and possibly attracted to Shirley, Rose is relegated to the role of dutiful wife, thankless mother and Shirley’s caretaker. In a similar vein, Fred hints at desires and frustrations in his career but spends most of the movie off-screen screwing students.
Bad movies are bad movies, but almost good movies are somehow worse. The story is compelling, the performances are good, and all the components are present. You can see what the filmmakers are going for, and you want them to get there, they just don’t. Sometimes the soufflé rises, and sometimes it falls. Sometimes the chef forgets to turn on the oven.