Directed by Josephine Decker.
Starring Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Robert Wuhl, Paul O’Brien, Orlagh Cassidy, Allen McCullough, Bisserat Tseggai and Edward O’Blenis.
A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.
A charged dynamic propels Shirley, a thriller which has fun both feeding and revelling in the building and unravelling of relationships. Based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, the film centres on a fictional episode in acclaimed horror/mystery writer Shirley Jackson’s life, when a young couple come to stay with her and husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name, The Post). Newly married, Rose (Odessa Young, The Stand, The Professor) and Fred (Logan Lerman, Fury, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) have moved to Vermont to further Fred’s career at Bennington College, where he will act as an assistant to Hyman. But the couple is disturbed by its hosts, who seem to delight in unconventional and disruptive behaviour – particularly the unwell Shirley (Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man, The Handmaid’s Tale).
The gorgeous Gothic aesthetic and tone of Shirley take inspiration from the mood of Jackson’s own writing, and merges well with the Americana vibes of its period setting. Despite Rose being firmly sequestered as “house help” at the beginning for Jackson and Hyman, a role she reluctantly embraces for the good of her husband’s career, Shirley comes with a delicious dollop of female liberation. The main journey of this film is the developing relationship between the spiky Jackson and the slightly reticent Rose – despite Jackson’s initially hostile behaviour, the two begin to bond over a shared interest in the darker, sensual and more mystical elements of life. Jackson’s motives might be unclear, but Rose blooms under her attention, as well as being granted the permission she seems to seek to prioritise her own desires.
Ambiguous (and sometimes more blatant) sexual energy between the central foursome adds a frisson, which enhances the air of unpredictability as the film’s tension mounts. Shirley may be the most ostensibly volatile character, but it starts to feel as if any of the characters could explode at any point as the bounds of propriety are stretched.
Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young are particularly fabulous as Shirley and Rose, ably supported (key word) by their husbands. They take centre stage, as the men – weak, selfish and untrustworthy (it’s not flattering) – orbit around them, despite their ostensible importance. Lerman convinces as a cookie-cutter young husband, reeking of privilege, while Stuhlbarg is outstanding as the jealous, manipulative Hyman. As an actor, Stuhlbarg is so impressive in domestic drama settings – and chameleonic, able as he was to engender the deepest sympathy as Elio’s father in Call Me by Your Name, ahead of the appalling Hyman. He also shares a fascinatingly layered relationship with Moss, as a couple that seem to both deride and depend on one another, needling their guests for each other’s enjoyment.
Moss is an actor with excellent taste when it comes to picking projects, almost guaranteeing quality in a film by her very involvement. Luckily, here she is just one among an extremely talented – mainly female – team, with director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick), alongside multiple female producers, cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, music from Tamar-kali and production design courtesy of Sue Chan (to name just a few).
Unsurprisingly, Shirley is a taut, engaging drama, which explores the intricacies of female relationships and roles in a considered, compelling – and stylish – manner.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★