At home in Aspen: Streaming ‘Shirley,’ a spooky and nontraditional biopic
IF YOU WATCH…
What: ‘Shirley, presented by Aspen Film and Neon
When: Beginning Friday, June 5
How much: $5.99
More info: Ticket-buyers have 72 hours after purchase to watch the film.
Most readers first encounter Shirley Jackson through “The Lottery,” the sensational short story that sparked scandal upon publication in 1948 and has since become the vehicle for high schoolers to learn about literary metaphor. In the new horror film/biopic “Shirley,” the young Rose (Odessa Young) meets the author on the page in much the same way, reading “The Lottery” in the New Yorker on a train with her newlywed husband (Logan Lerman). They’re headed to meet Shirley and her husband, Prof. Stanley Edgar Hyman, at their home near Bennington College in Vermont.
The fictional young couple is soon swept into an imagined version of the Jackson/Hyman household, with Rose’s husband, Fred, serving as a teaching assistant to Hyman and Rose — who is in early pregnancy — as Jackson’s domestic servant, subject of psychological abuse and, eventually, creative partner.
Fearless in the title role, Elizabeth Moss continues making a case as the most exciting American actor working today. Here, as in recent turns in “Us” and “Her Smell,” she plays a grotesque misanthrope who you can’t look away from. Her twitchy and feral Shirley Jackson hasn’t left the house in months while battling creative blocks and battling Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). She doles out wicked barbs, drinks heavily, declares herself a witch, declares Rose and husband “spies” and, at one point, when asked what she’s writing, responds with a grin: “A little novella I’m calling ‘none of your goddamn business.’”
It’s the second film release starring Moss to go to streaming since the novel coronavirus pandemic shuttered most American movie theaters this spring, following the March release of “The Invisible Man.”
“Shirley” premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize. It had been scheduled for theatrical release this summer. With the novel coronavirus keeping most movie theaters closed nationwide, it’s getting a streaming release from Neon on Friday. Aspen Film is partnering with Neon to present the film online.
The spooky and surprising film is based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrill and directed by Josephine Decker, who is following up her 2018 indie favorite “Madeline’s Madeline.”
It ignores the tropes and traditions of biographical films — and the often-disappointing subgenre of movies about writers — and instead imagines Jackson as a sort of gothic villain playing a part in the kind of story she might have written. It is, in part, about Jackson writing her novel “Hangsaman,” but moreso it’s interested in the domestic terror inflicted on women in midcentury America, with inspired creepy visual and auditory touches and flights of hallucination to create a wholly original portrait of genius.