“What a lovely skirt you have.”
“What a lovely insouciant tone you have.” – Two rivals greeting each other with knives-out dialogue cloaked in pleasantries in “Shirley.”
Watching Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg bat the dialogue around in the twisted domestic psychological drama “Shirley” is to see two of the most versatile actors in the world at the top of their game. It’s a thing of beauty wrapped in a toxic story.
“Shirley” is a stylized biopic, a lurid psycho-sexual fantasy, a scorched-earth domestic drama. The uniquely talented director Josephine Decker (“Madeline’s Madeline”) and the screenwriter Sarah Gubbins (adapting a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell) have teamed up with a two-generational quartet of fine actors to create one of the most visually arresting and intellectually provocative films of the year.
Moss, reinforcing our belief she can disappear convincingly into just about any character that comes her way, delivers yet another astonishingly authentic performance playing a fictionalized version of real-life author Shirley Jackson, best known for deeply disturbing stories such as “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”
“Shirley” is set in the late 1940s in Vermont, where Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a celebrated professor at Bennington College, and boy does Stanley revel in his status. He’s a horror show — an amalgam of the worst traits imaginable in a man of great learning wielding great power in a collegiate bubble. He works the classroom like he’s onstage entertaining the students graced to be in his presence, he’s a pontificating blowhard on and off campus, he treats impressionable coeds like his personal harem. Even his eating habits are despicable. He’ll rise from the table like a king, not even bothering to brush off the crumbs embedded in his unruly beard.
Stanley greets a class at the beginning of a new semester by playing a record by Lead Belly to establish his cool-cat credentials and then says, “This is myth and folklore. … [I’ll be] your fearless leader for the next 12 weeks as we ascend to the heights of the gods and stoop to the very depths of human depravity.” Kill me now.
Shirley has become a celebrated and controversial writer due to “The Lottery,” a cautionary tale in the New Yorker that spoke to a generation but also generated more letters of protest and subscription cancellations than maybe anything ever published in the august publication. Despite or perhaps because of that success, Shirley has become a prisoner of her own making in the house, which she hasn’t left for two months. She spends her days in a haze of cigarette smoke and depression, paralyzed by the mere thought of sitting down at the typewriter again. (Moss is a force as Shirley — equally watchable when she’s splayed out on the sofa, seemingly doing very little, or when she explodes in a fury and her shouts rattle the windows.)
Enter a young couple bursting with excitement about their future. Fred (Logan Lerman), who has been hired as Stanley’s new assistant and protégé, and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young), move in with Stanley and Shirley. Fred will accompany Stanley to campus every day, while Rose will tidy up the house and keep an eye on Shirley, who is growing ever more erratic as she becomes obsessed with the story of a local girl who has gone missing.
With director Decker employing hand-held and sometimes dizzying camera movements, often bathed in eerie, nightmare-like colors, there are times when fantasy and flashback and the “reality” of the moment mesh and clash. At first Rose is (rightfully) repulsed by Shirley’s cruel jabs — she tells her oblivious husband Shirley is a “f---ing monster” — but the two eventually strike an unholy bond of sorts, in part because it appears young Fred might be on the path to becoming a junior version of the adulterous, narcissistic Stanley.
Stuhlbarg is magnificent as the kind of character you love to hate, whether he’s manipulating his wife in passive-aggressive fashion, or putting the ambitious Fred in his place by calling his dissertation derivative (“I don’t have to read it to know that,” he tells his wife) and saying in a gentle tone to Fred, “Have you ever thought about teaching at the high school level? It’s exceedingly rewarding.”
The shifts in tone in “Shirley” can be jarring, from erotic love scenes to scathing exchanges with echoes of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” to moments when the screen is bathed in blood. There is nothing simple or straightforward or easily accessible about this material. That’s exactly what makes it so fascinating and so compelling.