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Review: Witchy, wordy 'Shirley' thrillingly follows famed horror writer

Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service on

Published in Entertainment News

The first exchange in the brilliant, brutal "Shirley" is telling about what's to come. A young woman, Rose (Odessa Young), finishes reading a short story ("The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson) and recounts the tale to her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman). "That's creepy," he observes. "It's terrific," she sighs. And so begins this creepy and terrific film about horror/mystery writer Jackson, portrayed here by Elisabeth Moss with her singularly feral ferocity.

Director Josephine Decker takes a bruising screenplay written by Sarah Gubbins, adapted from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, and delivers nothing less than a masterpiece, a powerhouse of performance, style and subtext. It is witchy and wordy and bracingly feminist; it is disorienting and strangely erotic and unpredictable. It feels "thrillingly horrible" at times, the term Rose uses to describe "The Lottery" to Shirley, winning her over.

Rose and Fred, newly knocked up and newly wed (you do the math), have landed in the center of bohemian academia at Bennington College, where they're due to stay with charismatic lit professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his reclusive writer wife, Shirley. Rose doesn't know what to make of her hosts, a couple of scotch-soaked geniuses with an endless supply of ingratiating yet barbed remarks. The whole scene is the very picture of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Rose is almost obscenely nubile, her dewy pink face bursting with life, a foil to the wan and disheveled Shirley. Stanley presses her into the duties of a "little wifey," to which she chafes but obliges, compelled by the strictures of this early '60s, pre-Betty Friedan world. Although she never leaves the house, Shirley has checked out from housekeeping to nurture her elusive writing gift. She intends to start work on a novel inspired by the true story of a girl, Paula, who went missing on campus, and with Rose looking after her needs and serving as something of muse and research assistant, she begins to rhythmically attack her typewriter.

The roving uneasy camera (the cinematographer is Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) reels almost drunkenly, with uneasiness underlined by an anxious cello plucking and bowing asymmetrically, dramatic piano flourishes adding gothic atmosphere. Shirley herself is a bit like a woozy punch-drunk boxer wobbling around, unsteady on her own two feet, but she can still land a psychological uppercut when she wants to. Watching Moss and Stuhlbarg verbally duet and duel on the screen is a thrill; Stuhlbarg wields Stanley's manipulation cloaked as friendly overfamiliarity like a weapon, while Moss punctuates her often near-catatonic performance with odd little aggressive gestures. Aussie actress Young, 22, impressively goes toe-to-toe with Moss, who is at the full height of her powers.

As the women bond, boundaries of all sorts begin to blur in a haze of imagined stories, psychic visions and future projections. Their connection is electric, elemental and almost sacred, and Shirley's gender anarchy proves to be contagious, and energizing. Rose loses her luster and adopts Shirley's vocal cadence. They start to meld, becoming doppelgangers of sorts, blending with each other, and the story of Paula. Each woman in the trio is a past, a future, a dangerous but tempting road not taken, in this world of little wifeys, unfaithful husbands and the oppressiveness of the home, which threatens to stifle the precarious and delicate power of female genius.

'SHIRLEY'

4 stars

 

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman.

Directed by Josephine Decker.

Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes.

Rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images.

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