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The Taunting of Hill House

Thatcher Keats/Neon

Shirley (2020)

Where are the children? In real life, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) had four: Laurie, Jannie, Sally and Barry. Your reviewer did not need to look up their names because, in addition to being a pre-eminent horror writer of the last century, Jackson also invented the parenting memoir. Her “Life Among the Savages” paved the way for “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies,” “With Six You Get Eggroll,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and every mommy blog and family YouTube channel that has followed. And yet, in this movie writer Sarah Gubbins and director Josephine Decker have vanished them completely. What is the point?

That is the pressing question about “Shirley”: What is the point? It’s not a biopic since the children are missing. But it does use real people, most importantly Paula Walden, a young woman whose real-life disappearance from Bennington College in 1946 remains unsolved. The movie is about how, a few years later, Shirley is inspired by Paula’s disappearance to begin writing a novel, “Hangsaman,” during a bout of depression and agoraphobia that is keeping her housebound. Not alone – the movie begins when a newlywed couple, Fred Nemsen (Logan Lerman in a thankless role) and his wife, Rose (Odessa Young), arrive for Fred’s new teaching role at Bennington, where Stanley offers them a room in their house if Rose provides the board. This means we’re treated to a few dinner scenes that strongly resemble “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” But at least when George and Martha played “Get the Guests,” there was a point.

It seems the point that “Shirley” is trying to make is that to create art, you must cannibalize the lives of others. It’s clear from the start that Stanley – a rockstar academic who has the pick of women on campus – has cannibalized Shirley’s. Their marriage has curdled into an ugly game, played in public, but one they find relentlessly interesting. Mr. Stuhlbarg is a roaring bull of a man in this, a charming bully almost impossible to stand up to, the dark half of his breakthrough role in “Call Me By Your Name.” The question of the movie seems to be whether, in addition to the absent Paula, Shirley is going to try to cannibalize Rose. Ms. Young is wonderful as a kind, clever person who feels both awe and revulsion at the changes happening in her life, but who is so wrapped up in herself that she is too quick to trust. Ms. Moss is magnificent as a witch and harpy capable of great empathy but who prefers to cause great harm. You could look at her scowling on a sofa for hours. But what are the stakes here? The movie isn’t interested enough in Rose as her own person to make the question of her survival a sincere one. Since the movie is based on Jackson the famous writer, whether she’ll write the book is never in doubt. The movie is beautifully made enough (the production design by Sue Chan, especially that of the ivy-covered house, is a work of art in itself) to keep you watching. But the question never changes: What is the point?

If you’re going to use the lives of real people to tell a story, you owe it to them to at least get the major facts straight. If there were small children in the house – whose needs will obviously clash with that of a writer trying to work – Rose’s assistance would have been essential, instead of childish indulgence, and that would have made the story of cruelty and absence Shirley is struggling to tell doubly interesting. Since the children do not exist here, the characters of Shirley and Stanley could have had their names changed. If the whole story was fiction instead of pick-and-mix, that would have made the question of whether the art will succeed unknown to the audience. Instead it feels like Ms. Decker was trying to have her cake and eat it. And we all know that’s a pointless exercise.


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