Elisabeth Moss, often drawn to portraying either vaguely or totally unlikable characters, has no vanity and no fear. In Josephine Decker’s Shirley, she plays a fictionalized version of eccentric, reclusive novelist and short-story writer Shirley Jackson—perhaps best known for her chilly 1948 groupthink parable “The Lottery”—and once again her instincts prevail. Her Jackson is a tyrant with cold, inquisitive eyes, her skin dotted with age spots, her tummy thickened with padding. Moss melts into this disguise like a poisonous but dazzling color-changing salamander, beckoning us for a closer look, if we dare.
Jackson died in 1965, at age 48, and Shirley, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, takes place roughly within the last decade of her life. Eager, aspiring academic Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) show up at the Vermont home Jackson shares with her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a seemingly affable Bennington professor whose rumpled jocularity masks a cruel streak. Stanley has hired Fred as an assistant, also offering the newlyweds a place to stay until they can get settled. What he really wants, though, is a housekeeper. The job naturally falls to Rose, who clearly has more natural curiosity and intelligence than her husband does, though she’s put her own studies on hold.
Rose also takes it upon herself to wrangle the increasingly impossible Shirley, an acid-tongued agoraphobe who can barely get out of bed. Shirley hasn’t written anything in ages. But after a rocky start, the two women, both hamstrung by their husbands’ thinly veiled condescension, forge a thorny friendship that jump-starts Shirley’s work at the typewriter.
Shirley leans a little too hard on its calculated “1950s housewife empowers herself” finale. Even so, Moss’ channeling of Jackson keeps the movie crackling. During her lifetime, Jackson never got the acclaim she deserved for extraordinary, unsettling novels like The Haunting of Hill House. Moss invites us, now, to take stock of this strange and brilliant woman. Rarely is a withering gaze this seductive.