This is a film based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell based on Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, two famous American writers who were married to each other. The key word here is ‘novel’ but the viewer doesn’t know that this is not biographical and this presents serious ethical questions with the liberties taken as various behaviors are ascribed to these individuals without our ability to distinguish between authorial fantasy from reality.
The film hits many current popular marks: male philandering, abusiveness, narcissism along with female insecurity, emotional distress, lesbianism and dependency on drugs and alcohol. The plot concerns a young couple coming to Bennington College for the husband to assist Professor Hyman. They agree to have his pregnant wife do the cooking and housework for the Hymans in exchange for their room and board. At first, this seems like a doubly good idea, allowing the husband to try for a job in the English department the following semester by impressing Hyman and for the couple to save their money for their expected child. They are both unaware of how psychologically damaged Shirley is, spending all her time indoors, drinking, sleeping and writing. Her mood swings are so wide that she seems tri-polar and as abusive as her husband. Of course this becomes apparent as soon as they move in yet the young wife is willing to put up with the situation and becomes infatuated by Shirley, eventually in a sexual manner.
An additional plot point is Shirley’s novel in progress about a young woman who disappeared from the town without being found. This offers more nuances concerning the perils of marriage, friendship and extra-curricular relationships. One of the pivotal scenes recalls Thelma and Louise as Shirley and Rose (the young wife and mother) stand at the edge of a precipice - a device too corny and contrived to be effective. The main reason to see this movie is the performance of Elizabeth Moss, an actress who is capable of making you read her most subtle thoughts without histrionics - a true artist or perhaps magician. The second reason is to remind you to re-read “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, one of the great short stories of the 20th century
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