I don’t smote.
What if instead of one night, Nick and Honey were entrenched in hosts Martha and George’s toxic manipulations for six months? Edward Albee‘s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would have progressed much differently if only because everyone would need to eventually sober up, confronting each other in the light of day with clear heads and accusatory eyes. Maybe there’d be regret and remorse or maybe things would pick up where they were left to expose how alcohol only helped to disseminate truths that were going to be shared regardless. If anything the additional time simply gives Martha and George more room to toy with their new pets by having extra fun at their expense. Maybe Nick and Honey would eventually escape. Or maybe they’d fall effortlessly in lockstep.
Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins answers some of these questions through her adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell‘s novel Shirley and its fictionalization of the months-long writing process behind Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman. She makes no qualms about its homage to Albee’s play and I’m honestly not sure it could have been avoided once you start digging into the story. There’s old guard Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) ingratiated by their biting wit that stings each other as much as the victims serving as easy targets for their personal attacks. Their abhorrent behavior entertains themselves with delight as those around them scurry for cover. His being the public, professorial face of the pair allows him to point blame her way. Her being a reclusive eccentric means it works.
Now add fresh-faced newcomers in Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose Nemser (Odessa Young). Both are intellectuals with him recently finishing his Masters and her volunteering to postpone the completion of her studies to raise the forthcoming child that has forced them to elope. Fred is going to be Stanley’s new assistant: a job that he sees as an in-road to securing tenure while his boss would conversely describe it to Shirley as having someone to pawn off the menial aspects of teaching. Rose plans to audit as many courses as she can until the baby comes, keeping out of Jackson’s hair considering she and Stanley were kind enough to offer them free room and board. But “free” actually means becoming the author’s unpaid housekeeper and very unwanted babysitter.
Sometimes the elder pair sees their young guests as possessing potential and other times as being albatrosses around their necks. The former occurs when Fred and Rose provide something they want, whether by performing a task well below their station or surprising Shirley and Stanley by being exactly what they say they are. Make one misstep, however, and it’s back to the latter. Dare to remind their hosts of their own fallibilities or get in the way of one of their games and the homeowners will wonder why they ever invited such insolent children into their abode. Everyone therefore walks a tightrope of use and abuse while secrets abound (both hidden and very much out in the open) as necessity makes way to comfort and comfort to complacency.
It’s here that director Josephine Decker infuses her unique style of visual storytelling upon the whole. I’ll admit to being nervous about how much of her artistry would shine through a biopic written by someone else, but it’s fully on display from frame number one. It helps that her subject is so often caught between worlds once dreams merge truth and imagination inside Jackson’s mind to manifest the missing woman she’s basing her new novel upon as Rose. The words she writes that are heard as narration become as much about the houseguest in front of her as the tragic Paula Jean Welden. They’re also about her: a woman noticed in her absence and too often disregarded until a man commodifies her worth with his stamp of approval.
And Decker portrays it all as though it’s one of Jackson’s psychological horrors. She maintains an element of suspense throughout via score, editing, and blocking like a ghost might appear around the corner if one of these characters doesn’t finally go mad enough to turn violent first. We view people through crowds, faces blurred by nightmare, and moments that step right to the precipice of danger before all tension releases with a cut. There’s a sinister quality to how Shirley and Stanley interact in public—wordlessly egging each other on until they can no longer contain their jealousies or rage. Get them in private, however, and they quietly tap dance around binding social agreements set for one another. Ignore them and they’ll happily enforce the punishment.
The prisons that have been erected around Shirley and Rose suddenly come into stark focus as seemingly innocent declarations like, “I’ll read what little you have to give feedback before you get too far.” and, “They really seem in a bind. Maybe it will be fun.” are revealed as the oppressive words of control they are. Favors become imperatives. Choice becomes dictation. It’s no wonder Jackson doesn’t want to exit the house and Rose begins to avoid talk about getting an apartment. Their husbands have pushed them into corners while making the world outside their own personal playgrounds. These women don’t want to be seen as only what their men have described. They want to be seen as who they truly are. They wish to be.
Both are faced with the question Shirley asks about Paula. Did she go into the woods to die or to escape and never return? Jackson and Rose will walk to the edge of their respective oblivions and either jump or turn back to tell their jailors, “No more.” The difference between them, however, is that Shirley also serves as a warden of Rose’s prison. She plays games with her like Stanley does, finding soft spots and breaking points to leverage against whenever she feels trapped or inferior. But Moss’ performance proves the capacity for remorse remains. It’s simply been too long since Shirley’s had a friend to notice when she’s gone too far. Her ability to escape may have passed, but she can still write one for another.
 Elisabeth Moss & Odessa Young. Courtesy of NEON.
 Michael Stuhlbarg & Elisabeth Moss. Courtesy of NEON.
 Logan Lerman & Odessa Young. Courtesy of NEON.