Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley.” Thatcher Keats/Neon

After heading to the drive-in to sate my quarantine hunger for new movies a few weeks ago, I decided to toss some money to another local movie business this week. As I noted back closer to the beginning of this pandemic shutdown, several local movie houses (The Apohadion, Frontier) are hoping to replace the responsibly unavailable in-person income from moviegoers with home streaming options. Plus, I really need to see some new movies, you guys, and I feel a whole lot better about giving a few bucks to Maine movie venues than the cable company, Amazon or other monsters of cinematic capitalism. 

So, checking out the PMA Films listings, I quickly and easily rang up a showing of “Shirley,” the new sort-of biopic of the late and legendary writer Shirley Jackson. As is this new (theoretically temporary) normal, part of the proceeds for the $5.99 rental go right to the Portland Museum of Art/PMA Films. Plus, the rental period is a generous three days, and this screening came complete with a brief, grateful message from “Shirley” director Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”), thanking me for supporting local businesses as well as her film, which was nice. 

As indie as it gets, “Shirley” is an impressionistic mood piece more than a straight biographical sketch of “The Haunting of Hill House” author, drawn from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Taking place over one season at the late-career Jackson’s Bennington, Vermont home, the film gives us just enough detail of the author’s infamously troubled life as it spins a presumably fictionalized tale of the pregnant young woman (a very good Odessa Young) who, along with her would-be professor husband, winds up living with Jackson and her gnomishly, serially adulterous husband, Bennington College professor Stanley Hyman (“A Serious Man’s” Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the simultaneously controlling and supportive spouse with peerlessly repellent charm). 

But this is Elisabeth Moss’ movie. As Jackson, Moss is – once more – stunningly alive onscreen, even more since her Jackson, like the real Jackson, is a semi-reclusive, depressive and deeply unhappy mess. Introduced holding court at a rare party at the couple’s perpetually messy home, Moss’ Jackson trades witticisms and jabs with her husband and her admiring but wary guests, finally snapping at one daring to ask about her next work, “It’s a little novella I’m calling, ‘None of your goddamned business.’ ”

But in private, the film’s Jackson is an agoraphobic alcoholic, hiding away in bed until her prodding husband forces her to interact with their new houseguests (and, in the case of Young’s Rosie, unwitting housemaid). Moss’ Jackson is a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged witch, a title the nosy, gossiping Bennington faculty wives and townsfolk are half-convinced is for real. At first, there’s a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” vibe to the scenario, with Jackson sussing out seemingly every intimate, unrevealed detail of the young couple’s circumstances and revealing them with a devilish gleam in her eyes. 

Moss’ presence animates “Shirley,” even as it could be said that she’s more of a supporting character in her own story. Taking the watchful but admiring Rosie gradually into her confidence, Jackson – wrestling with the stirrings of what would become her gothic female coming-of-age 1951 novel “Hangsaman” – takes perverse but genuine delight in taunting Rosie with how closely the young academic wife’s path mirrors her own. Moss depicts Jackson’s fevered mind as a constantly roiling cauldron of creative flashes, self-loathing and just plain loathing. In her drunkenness and pain, Moss’ Jackson is all bleariness – face and body and hair and clothes – until something seizes her attention, and her eyes snap into dagger focus in an instant.

There’s the hint of a mystery that never quite materializes in “Shirley,” as the real-life disappearance of a female Bennington student several years before serves as inspiration for Jackson’s tale of an 18-year-old woman approaching the new freedoms of a small liberal arts college life with complex and, it turns out, justified fear. As Jackson sends Rosie to do research, the surreptitious errands bring a glow to the young wife, first seen inspired by Jackson’s then-scandalous “The Lottery” (“The most reviled story The New Yorker has ever published,” boasts Jackson) to entice her obligingly dull husband to a train bathroom for a quickie. 

But being in this Jackson’s orbit carries risks as well as forbidden rewards. Hyman’s philandering (with his vulnerable young female students) and matching acid wit serve to needle Jackson to heights of creative torment and bring to the women’s strengthening bond undercurrents of betrayal and antagonism. Still, this is a women’s story, in that Jackson and Rosie’s friendship is strongest in finding how their various broken pieces – broken by men – fit together with exhilarating, if frightening intensity. Stroking Rosie’s swelling belly, Jackson says, with haunting earnestness, “Let’s pray for a boy. The world is too cruel to girls.” (Jackson’s early death and mental state were at least partly due to prescribed, conflicting medications for weight loss and anxiety.) 

“Shirley” plays, at times, like a horror movie. Apart from a bloody visualization of Jackson’s fiction at one point, the house where the film takes place is alive with footsteps and creaks, each small disturbance shot through with dark possibilities. It’s a way of bringing both Jackson’s fiction and her inner state to life, as if her formidable, poisonously fruitful presence can’t help but transform the world to resemble her view of it. Throughout, Moss’ Shirley Jackson, with her croaking voice and slumped posture, reigns over her domain, even as she is – in achingly painful moments of self-doubt and panic – clearly its victim. If such a thing as the Oscars actually happens this benighted year of closed theaters and new movies watched on old computers, Elisabeth Moss is likely to win one. 

“Shirley” is available to stream through the PMA Films site, with a portion of the rental going right to the PMA. 

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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