Entertainment

Why the Haunting Shirley Jackson Movie on Hulu Is a Must-Watch

How director Josephine Decker created the intoxicating movie starring Elisabeth Moss as the famed horror author.

shirley
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In the opening moments of the film Shirley, now available on Hulu, the frightening short story "The Lottery" makes a woman very horny. "The Lottery," of course, is Shirley Jackson's famous tale of a town's ritual death-by-stoning, and in the first scene of this quasi-biopic of Jackson's life an invented character named Rose (Odessa Young) finishes it and immediately takes her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to the train bathroom to get it on. This kind of dark, sexy, fucked-up energy courses throughout Josephine Decker's film, which loosely uses the famous horror novelist (played spectacularly by Elisabeth Moss) to tell a narrative about the madness of one brilliant woman infecting the younger generation. 

"Shirley Jackson, in real life, was always writing about romance between two women, which was often emotional, not necessarily about a physical consummation," Decker says. "But I feel like the sexuality between Shirley and Rose is, in some ways, like what it means to fall in love with a side of yourself that you didn't know existed. I think the two women are so polar opposites that what they're bringing out in each other is a more integrated, whole experience." 

I'm talking to Decker at a kitchen table in a gorgeous Park City condo a couple days after Shirley has premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. She asks if she can pump her breast milk when we talk. I say yes, of course, and something about it seems weirdly fitting; Shirley is a movie where femininity is front and center in all its messy physicality. 

This is nothing new for Decker, who last wowed Sundance with her 2018 film, Madeline's Madelineabout the toxic relationship between a mentally ill teenage girl and her drama teacher. But Shirley is a departure for her. This is the first film of Decker's that she didn't write herself. Instead, the screenplay by Sarah Gubbins is adapted from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. 

In an invention of the narrative, Rose and Fred come to the town of Bennington when Fred gets a position working under Shirley's husband, the puckish and vicious Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). At the behest of Stanley, who wants someone to look after Shirley in her reclusive state, the young intellectuals end up moving in with their elders, and Shirley takes it upon herself to antagonize the newly pregnant Rose. But slowly, the animosity between Shirley and Rose morphs into something symbiotic: They essentially start to haunt one another. As Shirley grows obsessed with the case of a missing young woman on campus -- an obsession that will turn into the novel Hangsaman -- Rose starts to inhabit the role of this character. Meanwhile, Rose's own psyche is infected by Shirley's, adopting her untamed aura. 

Decker had coincidentally just finished reading Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, about a family shunned from their town told from the perspective of the 18-year-old daughter, when she got the script for Shirley, and only dug further into her work when she was pitching the project. "Shirley does a great job of writing little girls as if they are kind of old wise sorcerers," Decker says. 

shirely
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Gubbins' script scrambles the timeline of Jackson's life to move up her agoraphobic period closer to the publication of "The Lottery," and Decker, whose earlier films use a lot of improvisation, ended up trimming a lot of the dialogue. In the brief rehearsal before the 30-day shoot, Decker had her actors do movement workshops she learned during her days with the Pig Iron Theatre Company. 

They shot on location in a real house that was furnished almost exactly the way it is in the film. "It just felt like you'd walked into 1938, 1940," Decker says. She wanted the film to replicate the feeling of reading one of Jackson's works, from the creaky house that feels like it's almost alive to the slow descent into surrealism. "Her work is so singular," Decker explains. "You're in such a structured place and then the ground beneath you gets soggier and soggier until you're in a bog. It was really important to me that the film feel like we're in a Shirley Jackson story. That was one of the things I was most excited by, in terms of developing the language of the film, was how to start in a more structured place and be on trajectory, but then constantly be deepening and making it more complex and then falling out of the living room and into the snowdrift." 

By the end, Shirley has dragged Rose into her muck, turning her into one of her novel's heroines. When Rose and Fred finally pack up to leave, he tells her that she'll be back to normal with a little rest and relaxation. She spits at him: "I'm not going back to that. Little wifey. Little Rosie. That was madness." In the last shot, Shirley and Stanley dance together: Their toxicity once again in harmony.

"I think we always knew it was going to end with them in that kind of embrace," Decker says. "You kind of invite a muse in, and then the muse is used up." From its first frames to its last, Shirley frames the act of writing as a visceral experience for both the artist and the reader. By the end, you are spent. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.