Review by Rich Cline | 2.5/5

dir Josephine Decker
scr Sarah Gubbins
prd Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Sue Naegle, Sarah Gubbins, Elisabeth Moss
with Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Robert Wuhl, Paul O'Brien, Orlagh Cassidy, Bisserat Tseggai, Allen McCullough, Tony Manna, Edward O'Blenis
release US 5.Jun.20,
UK 30.Oct.20
20/US 1h47

moss stuhlbarg lerman
london film fest

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moss and young
A fictional story involving iconic author Shirley Jackson is told with inventive style by director Josephine Decker, who infuses the screen with imagery and sounds that play on Jackson's work, using wildly colourful flourishes and nods to murky horror tropes. The actors are superb as people who become twisted around each other. But the story never quite clicks into gear, so it's only the creepy tension that keeps us watching.
In 1964 Vermont, eccentric novelist Shirley (Moss) and her professor husband Stanley (Stuhlbarg) are hosting one of their quirky parties when Rose and Fred (Young and Lerman) arrive to stay for a few days. Shirley immediately begins provoking this young couple, seeming to relish watching them squirm. Or perhaps she's using them as inspiration for the book she's writing. While Stanley and Fred bond over academic discussions, Rose becomes entranced by Shirley's dark soul, which seems almost magical. And their stay is extended when Rose turns out to be pregnant and Fred gets a job.
The interplay between these two couples is fascinating, as they throw various glances at each other to evoke flirtation, suspicion, intrigue and annoyance. This is a playful homage to Jackson's work and a layered exploration of the process of writing fiction, especially when that involves depicting the shaded sides of human nature. Yet despite all the hints, Decker is too preoccupied with how the film looks to properly delve into the themes, so what's happening in each couple feels dully similar and underdeveloped.

Moss has a lot of fun playing Shirley's offbeat persona, brash and observant, with hints of feeling underneath. She reveals a woman who watches people minutely so she can create vivid characters in her stories. Opposite her, Young gives Rose an open-faced wariness, but she's just as curious and invasive in her own way. Stuhlbarg is excellent as always in a smaller role as the charming but rather leery Stanley. And Lerman has a likeable presence even if Fred isn't around much.

It's frustrating that the film's tone is so lugubrious, and that Decker resorts to so many obvious chills along the way, because there's a terrific idea here that offers plenty of promise. But the archly gothic tone, with its muttered voiceover and carefully crafted visuals, stubbornly refuses to pay off. Instead, it seems to be merely cycling through a series of beautifully shot and sharply well-played scenes that have some subtext but add up to something that's naggingly uninteresting.

cert 15 themes, language, sexuality 8.Oct.20

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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall