Shot, thankfully, before COVID-19 all but shut down the Hudson Valley’s recent filmmaking boom, Josephine Decker’s new movie Shirley has hit the small screen. It’s being distributed by Neon (the company that brought us Parasite) and will be available on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, FandangoNow, Vudu, DIRECTV, DISH and Hulu. I recommend seeing it instead by purchasing tickets sold by your favorite local arthouse cinema, which could really use the money right now. Regional outlets currently streaming Shirley include the Downing Film Center in Newburgh, the Moviehouse in Millerton, Time & Space, Ltd. in Hudson and Upstate Films in Rhinebeck.
And yes, I do recommend seeing it, for reasons that transcend the fact that it was shot locally. During the summer of 2018, the cast and crew spent 24 production days at Hudson Valley sites that included the Delaware & Ulster Railroad in Arkville, the Mohican Trading Post in Leeds, the Reed General Store in Coxsackie, the Unification Theological Seminary in Barrytown and Woodstock Film Studios. Most of the interiors were shot at the Captain Joseph Allen Home in the Catskill hamlet of Jefferson Heights. Gunks hikers will recognize a clifftop scene as taking place at Sam’s Point in Cragsmoor. And Vassar stands in for the campus of Bennington College in Vermont.
North Bennington was the real-life home for many years to one of the preeminent American authors in the genre of psychological horror, Shirley Jackson (1916-1965). Her husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, taught at Bennington College, then still an all-girls school – a fact of which Hyman took notorious advantage. Based on a 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley isn’t a straight biopic of Jackson by any means; for one thing, it acts as if the couple’s four children didn’t exist at all. But it uses several real-life events that impacted the author’s life and social circles in the mid-to-late 1940s as launching pads for a cracking good cat-and-mouse tale.
One of these historical events was the yet-unsolved disappearance of a Bennington student named Paula Jean Welden, who set out for a day hike on the Long Trail and was never seen again. At the time our story begins, Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) is a hot mess, barely dragging herself out of bed, struggling to plot her second novel, Hangsaman, which was inspired by the Welden incident. Into her life and home come an entirely fictional younger couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman). They’re newlyweds with a baby on the way, on account of which Rose has dropped out of university. Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) has brought Fred to Vermont to be his teaching assistant, but he’s jealous of the young man’s talent and determined to thwart his obtaining tenure anytime soon. He demands that Rose take the place of the housekeepers and cooks who keep quitting because Shirley is so surly; he also starts making passes at Rose right away, though she deflects them.
Besides being a philanderer who insisted on an open marriage that Jackson didn’t want, Hyman was the Willy to Jackson’s Colette: an overbearing husband who insisted, in a way that was still widely tolerated in the mid-20th century, on holding the pursestrings even though the author was soon making more money than he was. He demanded to read and critique her work before anyone else did, disapproved of her writing novels rather than short stories, and even more of her genre switch from wry memoir to New England Gothic. Partly due to her own neuroses, which included crippling agoraphobia, and partly in response to her husband’s controlling behavior, Jackson developed addictions to alcohol, tobacco, barbiturates and amphetamines, and became a compulsive overeater. She would end up dying of heart disease at the early age of 48.
When we meet them at the outset of Shirley – in 1948, soon after the publication of her most celebrated short story, “The Lottery” – Jackson is just beginning to push back, to reclaim herself. Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s mostly handheld cinematography renders the author as blurry around the edges for the first half of the film, bringing her gradually into sharper focus the more she resists Stanley’s attempts to suppress her and gets a better handle on what she wants to do with the Welden character. But it’s Rose who pays the psychic price of this liberated energy. The two women quickly develop a complex codependent relationship, part sympathetic, part vampiric.
Much of the wicked fun of this movie lies in guessing who’s manipulating whom, when and why. Some reviewers have been comparing Stanley and Shirley to the cynical George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but the relationships here are rather more complicated than that. The foursome, locked in a pavanne of divided loyalties, shared oppression, hidden agendas, attraction and deception, challenge the audience’s comfortable notions about protagonists and antagonists in storytelling. For Shirley Jackson, as here depicted, sisterhood is powerful, but the ability to tell the story is the highest-priority outcome.
What makes this movie work as brain-teasing suspense rather than a domestic potboiler is the lead performances. The rare sort of actor whose face can tell us a hundred vivid stories even in a scene where she has no lines to read, Moss in particular demonstrates once again why she keeps racking up awards and nominations wherever she turns her attention. She may or may not represent the real Shirley Jackson, but she’s superb. It’s the Hudson Valley’s good fortune to have played host to this admirable production.