“I’m a witch, didn’t anyone tell you,” says the title character of “Shirley” to the naive young bride moving into the spare room. Shirley is Shirley Jackson, author of finely delineated tales of shock like “The Haunting of Hill House” and the classic short story “The Lottery." In Josephine Decker’s fascinating and disturbing drama — arriving in “virtual screenings” at the Coolidge Corner and Somerville theaters and elsewhere — she is both neurotic mess and manipulative genius. Her husband, college professor Stanley Hyman, may be even more so.
Jackson is played by Elisabeth Moss (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and Hyman by Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man,” “Call Me By Your Name”) — two slyly gifted actors who play this marriage for all the dysfunction it apparently had in reality. Written by Sarah Gubbins, the film is based on a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and, while fictional, hews to the basic outlines of the couple’s contentious lives. The movie feels not a little like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with a literary George and Martha tormenting each other for fun.
There’s even a Nick and Honey — two kids who serve as fresh meat — in the form of Stanley’s new assistant, Fred (Logan Lerman), and Fred’s wife, Rose (Odessa Young). No sooner have the younger couple moved into the rambling house outside Bennington, Vt., than they are sucked into Shirley and Stanley’s creepy power games. For one thing, Stanley quickly drafts Rose as the household cook and cleaning lady, since “Shirley can’t keep up.” (“How’s your rump roast?” he leers.)
Rose is actually the central character of “Shirley” — it’s through her initially worshipful, then horrified, and ultimately complicit gaze that we see the brilliant ruin that is Jackson. The writer is an agoraphobe who hasn’t left the house in months, who sleeps all day and scribbles furiously into the night. She’s working on “Hangsaman,” Jackson’s 1951 novel based on the true case of Paula Welden, a Bennington student who went for a walk in the woods and never returned. In the furnace of Jackson’s creative process, Rose becomes the canvas for the fictional Paula, with Young playing both women as “Shirley” slips back and forth between reality and the author’s imagination.
Director Decker has been here before. Her bravura 2018 movie “Madeline’s Madeline” was a smaller-scale version of a similar story, with an emotionally unstable teenage girl being befriended and exploited by an imperious artist-mentor (in that case a theater director). As in that film, Decker employs a crowded frame, a roving camera, and a skittering, surreal sound mix to keep both her main character and the audience off-balance while suggesting a gradually fraying mental state. That approach has its pretensions, and because “Shirley” is both more ambitious and less focused than “Madeline’s Madeline,” the audio-visual overloading can feel self-conscious and forced.
But Young is very good as Rose, a smart and feeling woman who herself is expected to disappear into her husband’s academic career. (Lerman as Fred does what he can with an underwritten role.) She’s pregnant — a fact Shirley divines just by looking at her — and the movie takes us skillfully into the anxieties and emotions of an expectant mother. Rose’s hosts don’t provide much comfort: They have an arrangement that allows Stanley to stray as long as he keeps it outside the home, and Fred clearly worships the older professor in more ways than one. Plus there are all those Bennington students in tight sweater sets draped about the campus like hamadryads.
So the dynamic between Shirley and Rose (and/or Paula) becomes the movie’s arena of conflict and camaraderie, as the younger woman comes to protect the writer against the peck-peck-pecks of Stanley’s undercutting and shores her up at a cocktail party held by the dean’s backbiting wife. There’s a bit of “Persona” to the relationship, as which woman is the stronger is always in question until very nearly the end.
By contrast, the undercard of “Shirley” is the bruising, scintillating war of wills between Jackson and her husband. Stanley Hyman was by all accounts a larger-than-life figure, and Stuhlbarg plays him with the exuberance of a clown and the insecurity of a bully. He’s Shirley’s best reader and worst enemy, and the final images of Decker’s film paint a chilling picture of two people who, in the end, probably deserve to be chained to each other. “To our suffering,” Stanley toasts his wife in an early party scene. To which Shirley responds, “There’s not enough Scotch in the world for that.”
Directed by Jospehine Decker. Written by Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman. “Virtual screening” available through the Coolidge Corner and Somerville theaters. 107 minutes. R (sexual content, nudity, language, and brief disturbing images).