Elisabeth Moss highlights fabricated film biopic of author 'Shirley' Jackson

  • An unpredictable college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) shares a strained marriage with a celebrated writer (Elisabeth Moss) in "Shirley."

    An unpredictable college professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) shares a strained marriage with a celebrated writer (Elisabeth Moss) in "Shirley." Courtesy of Neon

  • Writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), left, establishes a conflicted relationship with a college student (Odessa Young) in "Shirley."

    Writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), left, establishes a conflicted relationship with a college student (Odessa Young) in "Shirley." Courtesy of Neon

 
 
Updated 6/4/2020 9:56 AM

I usually have no problem with artistic license used when telling stories of real people.

But sometimes the journalist part of me butts in and throws a flag on the play -- or here, the movie.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In Josephine Decker's fractured and fictionalized biopic "Shirley," the spellbinding Elisabeth Moss returns to her signature simmering skillset by channeling implosive horror writer Shirley Jackson, known mostly for her disturbing (and still politically relevant) short story "The Lottery" (adapted into an atrocious 1969 film short), and her gothic novel "The Haunting of Hill House" (the basis for a classic 1963 feature followed by a pathetic 1999 remake and an astonishingly imaginative 10-part Netflix series).

No American film actress projects raging internal conflict with more transparency and power than Moss, the stellar force behind "The Handmaid's Tale" and this year's "The Invisible Man."

Although Moss qualifies as Decker's strongest asset, her celebrated writer nearly becomes a supporting character in her own story.

"Shirley" opens with two youthful innocents coming to a strange place, unaware of the social, economic, psychological and sexual spider webs waiting to ensnare them.

A pregnant Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) and her new would-be-professor husband Fred (Logan Lerman, appearing too young to see this R-rated movie) arrive at Bennington, an all-female liberal arts college in Vermont during the 1960s. (Susan Scarf Merrell's 2014 novel, the basis for this movie, sets it in 1964.)

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They quickly meet the campus stars/writers/teachers/alcoholics Professor Stanley Hyman (a perfectly game Michael Stuhlbarg) and his famous wife Shirley Jackson.

With his Groucho eyebrows, Woody Allen glasses and thick beard, elitist literary critic Stanley proves to be a witty manipulator, protector and exploiter of his spouse.

Shirley, a basket case of neuroses and insecurities tightly bundled up in schoolmarm eyeglasses, an electroshock coiffure and last week's clothes, wrestles with writer's block on her next book while never running out of abrasive, abusive thoughts to impart.

Stanley strong-arms Fred and Rose to move into their house, free, in exchange for them cleaning the rooms and preparing meals while Shirley sleeps until noon and never leaves the house, as if preparing for a pandemic.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A strong whiff of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" permeates this similar plot as the middle-aged couple demeans and baits the younger one.

Then, Fred practically vanishes for the rest of the movie as Rose becomes a little bit too enamored with Shirley.

"I'm a witch," Shirley tells her. "Didn't anyone tell you?"

Decker, mostly known for her 2018 experimental feature "Madeline's Madeline," boldy steps out of the formula biopic box with chronologically scattered scenes and an ominous, string-dominant score from composer Tamar-Kali.

But the journalist part of me still wanted to know more. What made Shirley tick?

Not in this story, a concoction from Merrell's novel. The Nemsers never existed, either. (Meanwhile, the Hymans' real children magically disappear.)

Well, Shirley said she's a witch, and Decker plants small suggestive horror elements to preserve that vibe.

Take the scene where fearful Rose discovers Shirley appearing quite dead on the floor during a nasty lightning storm. A huge thunder clap! Shirley's eyes pop open!

I swear that if I had seen this with my fellow film critics in a screening room, the entire audience would have shouted, "It's alive!"

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