Directed by Josephine Decker
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, and Odessa Young
A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.
Celebrated author Shirley Jackson was reportedly displeased that her 1954 novel The Bird’s Nest was marketed as psychological horror. If she were alive today, she likely wouldn’t have the same gripe with the actual contents of Josephine Decker’s Shirley (the trailer itself does play up the brief horror aspects for heightened intrigue), a blending of reality and fiction (based on the equal parts truthful study/fantastical homage Shirley: A Novel from Susan Scarf Merrell) that doesn’t use mental illnesses for uneasy scare tactics. The characters may have neurological conditions (in the case of this exaggerated version of Shirley Jackson, possibly even supernatural intuition), but the thrills come from how it relates to the ever-changing dynamics and relationships between the household’s inhabitants.
It’s far more layered than your standard character study (I hesitate to call it a biopic considering all of the fictional elements within the story), which shouldn’t really be a surprise for anyone familiar with filmmaker Josephine Decker. She is responsible for Madeleine’s Madeline, an artistic puzzle box experience that demands repeated viewings to grasp a firm handle on its various commentaries regarding the nature of acting itself. Shirley is a much more conventional and straightforward thriller, yet still a profoundly stirring puzzle box nonetheless. For anyone out there that was worried Josephine Decker making a movie about a real person would squash out her experimental tendencies, fear not, as there is much to unpack here.
Elisabeth Moss portrays Shirley Jackson, because why not? It’s a role that perfectly slides into her incredible output of performances laced with mania, hysteria, trauma, and emotional abuse. The difference here is that Shirley Jackson has more than one mode and isn’t just standing around like a distressed and reclusive agoraphobic mess. Sure, she does that sometimes, but she also seems to relish delivering snide retorts to those both excited and repulsed by her “thrillingly horrible” stories (that halfhearted outrage is almost reminiscent to the backlash against videogame violence earlier in the 2000s). She’s also not afraid to get confrontational and territorial when her literary critic husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) brings in a pair of his college students to live with them, mainly to help out around the house as the latest housekeeper has had enough of Shirley’s aggressive outbursts.
However, Shirley is vulnerable about her writing itself. Harboring a strong amount of self-doubt, her insecurity only becomes amplified whenever Stanley, most likely a failed storyteller turned lecturer, hounds her to get to writing so he can read and criticize more work. Elisabeth Moss is already a triumphant actor deserving of multiple Oscars already (if Her Smell had been distributed by any studio that actually has a budget, she would have been nominated last year for Best Actress), and this is no exception, here effectively able to make the audience recoil just as much like her in suspense over whether Stanley will actually have encouraging and positive feedback or if he will bring down the hammer like a crazed nut job who secretly gets off on repeatedly putting down his vastly more talented and superior wife.
As such, it’s a relief that she begins to let open up to Rose (Odessa Young), the pregnant wife of one of Stanley’s new students Fred (Logan Lerman), also known as the aforementioned couple taking up lodging in the Vermont residence. Initiated by possible visions of Rose’s pregnancy, the two slowly begin to bond over her journey to motherhood (visible stages of pregnancy are a good passage of time indicator), witchcraft, suicidal thoughts, and the mystery of a local lonely college girl named Paula that stands to be the subject of Shirley’s novel-in-progress.
On a first watch, some of these elements might appear to not mesh well (the disappearance of Paula seems to take a backseat for a short amount of time), but Josephine Decker (not only adapting the novel but also bringing to life a script from Sarah Gubbins), but it all plays a part in a deeper study of not only marital worth, but one’s worth in general to someone that claims to care about them. The film also never gets too comfortable operating as another treatise on how women should build each other up, as there are still disingenuous acts. Nevertheless, something as simple as observing Rose being around Shirley and taking more control over her life is compelling (and expressed through an intensely erotic display of sexual dominance).
The cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gently captures the evolving connection between Shirley and Rose; there’s a beautiful sequence involving a swing and a 1950s era-appropriate clothing brushing up against each other, and most intimate moments are done with extreme close-ups to present each delicate touch. Music from Tamar-kali is both ominous and foreboding, serving as a fantastic component to the psychological appeal of these characters. But really, it all comes down to Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young; the range of emotions they are able to convey without saying much during their individual climaxes is nothing short of extraordinary.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com