Shirley goes down the Rabbit Hole

Are all writers crazy?

by Michael Bergeron

That certainly seems to be the path that filmmaker Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) takes in her occasionally absorbing movie about author Shirley Jackson.

Elisabeth Moss as an actress is at least 20,000 on the Scoville Scale and she brings a noticeable level of mannerisms and anxiety to her portrayal of Jackson. 

It would be wrong to call “Shirley” a biopic. Set against the academic background of Vermont’s Bennington College in the early 1950 the film centers on a love/hate relation shared by Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman along with the newest student in his graduate class (Logan Lerman) and his bride (Odessa Young).

More often than not “Shirley” resembles a redux of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

Hyman (an animated and mostly charming Michael Stuhlbarg) openly cheats on his wife despite pandering to her depressive cycle of drinking, sleeping and writing. Moss knows how to elicit every nuance of her character’ personality. 

The film starts with Lerman and Young on a train to his new school. She’s just finished reading “The Lottery.” Young strikes a chord because she’s the performer with whom we’re least familiar. Young also has the boldest scenes.

Lerman isn’t given much to work with. He’s just a handsome grad student whose motivation seems firmly molded by his libido. 

It isn’t long before Shirley draws Young into her web of delusion. While they flirt with having a mutual affair their relationship is more of an understanding of what it takes to defy the male hierarchy that dominates their small town.

Jackson in addition to writing “The Lottery” penned “The Haunting of Hill House,” itself a mainstay of the horror genre most recently made into a Netflix mini-series.

“Shirley” doesn’t resemble a horror film per se so much as a psychological drama. Shirley has her own unique method of madness and at times it rubs against her own best interests.

“Shirley” debuts via streaming today, Friday, June 5 on various VOD platforms.

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