We’ve seen many portrayals of horror writers like Mary Shelley in the throws of their creative epiphanies. The night that birthed Frankenstein is especially well travelled. And certainly, the life of female writers has been explored, be it Austin, Collete, or Plath. But, till now, I don’t think I’d seen a story covering Shirley Jackson. Who, by all accounts, struggled in life with a bad marriage and with crushing depression even as she produced seminal works of horror like The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. In fact, she produced 200 short stories and six novels and left an indelible mark on American literature.
However, this movie does little to make any of Jackson’s opus tangible as it is only very loosely based on the facts both in timing and her situation. Director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) was rather creative with Sarah Gubbins’ (I Love Dick) script bringing it to life, but that script was rather…creative with the facts. The story, in truth, comes off more Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe, Salome’s Last Dance, or a weird American mirror to the lives of Gertrude Stein and Jean Paul Satre than it does a real biopic.
The result is more a four person play with the women at the center. Elisabeth Moss (The Kitchen) and Michael Stuhlbarg (The Post) as Jackson and her vile husband Hyman are the chaotic energy that fuels the story. Moss is an almost perfect replica of Jackson, while Stuhlbarg comes off as Mandy Patinkin’s evil twin. These two insinuate themselves as transformative energy into the lives of a young couple: Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) and Logan Lerman (Indignation). Frankly, Lerman, for all his efforts and earnestness, is lost in this story. He’s incidental but not essential. It is Young’s journey as the opposite loci of the weird ellipse that is formed with Moss that drive the movie.
In the end, the story itself is meant to become a Jackson tale. However, it is neither fully satisfying, viscerally horrific, nor focused enough to work. By bouncing between the two women, one of whom is not the title character, it never quite finds its center and purpose. We want to learn about Jackson, but we end up with something quite different and not fully defined.
Moss’s and Young’s performances are really quite good. If you want to watch just for that and, to a lesser degree, Decker’s orchestration of the story, it isn’t wasted time. If, however, you wanted a fully satisfying experience or inciteful tale of Jackson’s life, you probably want to go elsewhere.