SHIRLEY (2020)

June 4, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “Thrillingly awful”. That’s how Rose describes the feeling she had from reading Shirley Jackson’s 1948 short story “The Lottery.” It’s also a likely reaction many will have to watching director Josephine Decker’s (MADELINE’S MADELINE, 2018) mostly fictionalized biography of the author known for her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles. The film is uncomfortable to watch and challenging to process, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, we remain enthralled the entire time.

As the film opens, Rose (Odessa Young, ASSASINATION NATION, 2018) is on the train reading Jackson’s divisive story. We gain some insight into her personality as she allows a sly grin to cross her face, and then gets frisky with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) in a train cabin. Soon they arrive at the home of Ms. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic. Shirley is suffering through a bout of depression brought on by writer’s block, and though she’s initially against the young couple staying with them, she slowly finds a use for Rose. It doesn’t take long for us to realize everyone here wants something from the others. Stanley is worried about Shirley’s mental stability, so he convinces Rose to take on the domestic chores. Fred hopes Stanley will bless his thesis so that Bennington College will hire him. Stanley seizes on Fred’s ambition by having him take over some of his teaching load. Rose endures some harshness from Shirley, but the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley’s new novel.

The new novel is “Hangsaman”, which Shirley actually wrote years before this story is set. It’s about the disappearance of a college student named Paula, and it’s at this point where the visions and/or projections begin. Things get a bit hazy for us … and for Rose. At times, Shirley is downright creepy. Are we watching something supernatural?  Is she a good with or a bad witch … or something else altogether? At times, Shirley appears to be unraveling – and possibly bringing Rose down with her. But then we hear another of the razor sharp verbal sparring matches between Shirley and Stanley. These are works of art. Stanley needling her just enough to inspire more writing. Shirley fires off cutting remarks as brutal as any wounds a knife fight might cause. It’s an advanced course in the creative mind vs the pompous academic. Stanley understands that allowing her to become unhinged is all part of the process, and will likely lead to her best work.

Multiple dynamics between characters creates chaos for viewers. Shirley and Stanley have their gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven’t even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley’s disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation. There is a lot to take in – domestic life in the era of “little wifey”, the strains of starting and maintaining a career, and the inner-demons of the creative mind. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity, and given the times, this should be much easier for the men.

Sarah Gubbins’ first feature film screenplay is based on the 2014 novel “Shirley” by Susan Scarf Merrell. Again, this is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of Shirley Jackson’s real life mixed in. Of course Shirley’s and Stanley’s four kids are nowhere to be found, allowing for more focus on the contrasting featured couples. In fact, Ms. Young’s Rose is the perfect “opposite” for Ms. Moss’ Shirley, both in looks and demeanor. It’s impossible to miss the similarities between this and director Mike Nichols’ classic WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. That one had more yelling, but this one cuts just as deeply. One of the best ever onscreen jabs occurs when Stanley sourly describes Fred’s thesis as “terrifically competent”, and then adds in a disgusted tone, “There’s no excuse for that.”

Special notice should be made for the music and cinematography. Composer Tamar-kali (MUDBOUND, 2017) pierces us with music often limited to plucks of cello and/or piano, adding a near-horror element to the frightening interactions we are watching. And with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen (WENDY, 2020 and VICTORIA, 2015) expertly captures the harrowing glares of Shirley and the bemused smirks of Stanley in close quarters. The camera work adds to the constant immediacy of each moment.

Shirley Jackson’s most famous full-length work was “The Haunting of Hill House” (1959), which was adapted into director Robert Wise’s 1963 film THE HAUNTING, as well as another version in 1999. Most recently, it was the source material for the very popular Netflix limited series in 2018. Ms. Jackson did suffer with anxiety issues and agoraphobia, and her writing influenced many who came along later. While Mr. Lerman is a bit short-changed, the other three leads are superb in this film that likely will have very little appeal to the masses … you know … those people who can’t find pleasure in almost two hours of misery and a head-scratching ending. The end result is a story about Shirley written in a manner that we can envision it as one of Shirley’s own.

Neon will release SHIRLEY on Hulu, VOD, Virtual Cinemas and participating Drive-Ins June 5th, 2020

watch the trailer:

 


SWEET VIRGINIA (2017)

November 15, 2017

Greetings again from the darkness. Murders-for-hire evidently have a better success rate in real life than in movies, because cinematically speaking, they usually result in quite the mess for all involved (and some who aren’t). Fresh off the 2012 Black List for best unproduced scripts, the screenplay from twin brothers Benjamin China and Paul China offers up a neo-noir with a familiar enough premise in a not-so-familiar setting.

Director Jamie M Dagg offers little chance for us to settle in, as a violent and seemingly senseless triple murder occurs within the first few minutes. We get our Bang Bang, with the Kiss Kiss soon to follow. The usually friendly game of poker among friends goes south quickly thanks to Elwood (Christopher Abbott, IT COMES AT NIGHT), a stranger in town. We soon enough learn that he is in town on “business”, and now that the job is done, he expects to be paid.

Elwood not-so-patiently awaits his pay day while staying at the Sweet Virginia Motor Motel. It’s a simple inn inherited by, and now run by, Sam Rossi (Jon Bernthal) – a former rodeo star who these days battles multiple physical issues with pain dulled only by his morning weed ritual, and an ongoing affair with one of the ladies recently widowed by the Elwood’s gun. Sam is shaggy looking, mellow and quite a pleasant fellow who seems like many in this quite small Alaska town … living here for the solitude and anonymity.

Imogen Poots plays Lila, and Rosemarie DeWitt plays Bernadette. Their unhappy marriages of 3 and 18 years respectively have ended abruptly, and while neither is much into grieving, they both have new problems with which to deal. There is an unusually scarce police presence given that a triple homicide of local citizens has just occurred, but the focus here is on the four main characters, and especially on the two men.

Elwood is exceedingly high-strung and prone to violent outbursts, while Sam is congenial to all, and generous with his time and advice to local high schooler and motel employee Maggie (Odessa Young). To ensure that no viewer is left behind, there is a diner scene that emphasizes the polar opposite personalities of Elwood and Sam. Rather than pack the intended punch, it mostly just comes across as obvious and unnecessary. And that in a nutshell, is what keeps the film from being a bit more intriguing.

While there is not a lot of excess talking, death hovers over most scenes and conversations. The connection between Sam and Elwood marks the sometimes easy bond of strangers, while the fractured marriages of Lila and Bernadette show how character flaws are unveiled over time. Jessica Lee Gagne’s cinematography and the slow pacing to match the setting are both to be admired, but the film lacks any type of artistic or stylish differentiation, and relies solely on the fine performances of the cast. It’s certainly no BLOOD SIMPLE or HELL OR HIGH WATER, but it’s interesting enough to hold attention for 90 minutes … despite the mess being all cleaned up and tidy by the end.

watch the trailer: