Shirley is a movie like few others. I wish I could say that's a recommendation, but despite some nice work in the areas of performance, score and production design, it's not. The picture isn't without interest, but it's artsy and jumbled, and it feels interminable.
In recounting the life of the late writer Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker has chosen to base her film not on a biography of Jackson, but on a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Key elements of biographical detail are thus elided, and much is invented.
The story presented is in part a repurposing of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg, portraying Jackson and her husband, the literary critic Stanley Hyman, are slightly less-boozy approximations of George and Martha, the feuding academic couple at the center of Edward Albee's 1962 play (and its Oscar-winning movie adaptation, which starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). Odessa Young and Logan Lerman play Rose and Fred, who take on the function of Albee's Nick and Honey, the younger couple who stray onto the battleground of George and Martha's shell-shocked marriage.
The movie begins in 1948, with Rose and Fred on a train to Vermont, where Fred is going to become an assistant to Stanley, a professor at the all-female Bennington College. Rose is reading the latest issue of The New Yorker, which contains Shirley Jackson's breakthrough short story, "The Lottery," a grisly tale which has been widely greeted with horror and denunciation. Not by Rose, though. "It's terrific," she says, slipping a hand down into Fred's crotch. (The Lottery's a great piece of work, but I don't remember it being quite that terrific.)
Upon arrival at Shirley and Stanley's rambling house, Rose and Fred find a party going on, with the irritatingly manic Stanley reeling about with a ridiculous ivy wreath on his head and the agoraphobic Shirley retreating into a bottle of scotch. Rose and Fred become temporary houseguests, and Stanley eventually tells them that Shirley suffers from various physical debilities—she's overweight and smokes and drinks too much and…well, she's a mess. He's weary of being her minder—there are so many cute young students he'd rather to devote his attention to. So he asks Rose to take over.
From this point, as Shirley and Rose's odd relationship blossoms like a basement full of midnight mushrooms, Moss and Young own the movie. Moss—one of the film's producers (Martin Scorsese executive-produced)—discards whatever vanity she might possess to take on the physical trappings of a classic middle-aged frump: her Shirley is wide-bodied, bosomy, a little pot-bellied. Moss still has to deal with the fact that the movie inexplicably makes Shirley out to be both clairvoyant (she intuits that Rose is pregnant) and weirdly diabolical ("I'm a witch," she says, "didn't anyone tell you?"); but she's able to fill out the character with unsettling leers and some wonderfully gaudy lines provided by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins. ("Fred, you'd better put your wife to bed before she faints in the sauerkraut.") Young's plump-cheeked sweetness is immediately appealing and grows more sinewy as the story attempts to take shape, although there's nothing she can do to smooth out its lumpy structure. (Tamar-Kali's vivid score—a showdown of orchestral strings and distant insects—can't quite turn that trick either, nor can Sue Chan's cozy, clutter-centric production design.)
Prospective viewers will naturally benefit from a familiarity with Jackson's work, especially her 1951 novel Hangsaman, the book she's laboring on throughout the film, which was partly modeled on the case of Paula Jean Welden, an 18-year-old Bennington student who disappeared in 1946 and was never found. It will also help to know the circumstances of the death of the actual Virginia Woolf, and the nature of the mythological creatures called Sirens. It won't hurt to be familiar with the strategies and frustrations of slow-going art movies, either.