Probably everyone who took a literature course in high school or college has read Shirley Jackson's “The Lottery.” It's an easy-to-grasp, yet superbly written tale that comes with a final twist guaranteed to blow students' minds. Elisabeth Moss plays the famous writer in Shirley. This is not a typical biopic, though. Instead, it's an exploration into the troubled psychology of a deeply talented woman whose air of mystery inspires different reactions from those around her.
Before we meet Shirley, we meet Fred (Logan Lerman) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). Fred is the new teaching assistant of Shirley's husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) at Bennington College. Stanley suggests taking the couple in, partly because Rose could look after Shirley, who is in poor mental health. “The Lottery” has already come out and she's formulating the idea for what will eventually become “Hangsaman,” but her obsession over the case of a missing woman might not be helping her state of mind. Figuring the free room and board would be nice, the marrieds agree to the arrangement.
Shirley certainly is mercurial. She's prone to tantrums, unable to get out of bed some days, and unpredictably blunt. It's purposefully hard to tell whether her provocations are the result of mental illness or an act she puts on to amuse herself. Rose begins in awe of her – the opening scene finds her gushing over “The Lottery” – then slowly begins to see the real woman behind the famous exterior. Shirley's behavior is sort of a mask to hide the fact that she's emotionally drowning. The film suggests at times what Rose clearly recognizes, namely that Stanley is stifling her creative process, possibly out of jealousy over her success or maybe because he fears her new project will be the thing that pushes her off the edge once and for all.
So many intriguing possibilities are posed by Shirley. Does the reclusive, agoraphobic author care about Rose, or is she just using the woman as a pawn in some sick game? Is a romantic attraction developing between them? Why is Stanley so intent on keeping her calm and at home? Those are just a few examples of things you ask yourself as you watch the movie. The point appears to be that Shirley's talent is so immense, and her ideas so unorthodox, that no one knows entirely what to make of her. If the mental health issues grow too severe, the writing could dry up; at the same time, those same issues could be crucial to her creative process.
Much of the pleasure in Shirley comes from interpreting what the characters are doing. No one here is all good or all bad. People who start off seeming sympathetic do bad things. Others, particularly Shirley herself, seem a little shady at first, only to reveal vulnerabilities or moments of compassion. At the center of it all is the author's writing, which draws everyone else to her in varying ways. In the orbit of someone so preternaturally talented, they tend to make things about themselves.
Elisabeth Moss continues her recent string of outstanding performances here. The actress suggests both the brilliance of Shirley and the insecurity. Rather than making her completely heroic or completely crazy, as often happens in biopics, she creates layers that gradually peel away over the film's running time, so that the author is multi-dimensional. Odessa Young, meanwhile, does nice work showing how Rose shifts from admiring Shirley as a Great Writer to seeing her as a person. We believe that this woman could get close to someone who routinely pushes friends away. Michael Stulbarg, as always, is terrific, too. It's interesting how he makes Stanley an exuberant professor on the surface, then shows the darker tones to his personality underneath.
The character of Fred is a little underwritten. He does something in the third act that the story hasn't totally laid the groundwork for. I also wish the film had a slightly more concrete ending. That's not to say that everything needed to be spelled out, just that it had a chance to say something profound about its themes and didn't quite take the opportunity.
Directed by Josephine Decker, Shirley is overall a compelling, if very slightly flawed portrait of a great writer, fueled by Elisabeth Moss's dynamic work.
out of four
Shirley is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.