Film Review: ‘Shirley’ Is A Haunting Human Drama
If you’re looking for a factual biopic about revered horror author Shirley Jackson, this is not the film for you. Josephine Decker’s Shirley is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s similarly-titled novel, which gives a fictionalized account of the the writer’s life — complete with imagined houseguests and a real-life ghost story. The director then puts her own slant on the material, constructing a portrait that gently sways between the real and surreal. In doing so, she admirably replicates the sense of stifled unease that permeates Shirley Jackson’s oeuvre.
The film begins with a newlywed couple, Fred and Rose, making their way to Vermont to pursue a career in academia. Fred (Logan Lerman) will assist Professor Stanley Hyman (the great Michael Stuhlbarg) at Bennington College, while his bride studies. At least, that’s the plan. As soon as they arrive, Stanley’s actual motive becomes apparent. He wants Rose to care for his wife, the notorious Shirley Jackson, who is depressed, agoraphobic and gripped with writer’s block. Fred blithely agrees.
It doesn’t take long for Shirley and Stanley to toy with their guests. They are mocking and cruel, but they save their real venom for each other — sparring in scenes that evoke Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolf. For all her brilliance and disdain for societal norms, the author is very much under the thumb of her philandering husband. He dictates what she eats, writes and says. At first, Rose feels a sort of emotional superiority — she feels respected — but soon starts to question her own marriage as Fred pursues his career, while she cooks and cleans for Shirley.
The women are bound by mutual misery and slowly realize they have quite a bit in common. They are both free-thinkers and creatives, who are trapped by the rampant sexism of ’50s America, and begin to nudge closer to something akin to friendship. Their bond deepens as they investigate the murder of a local student and realize that they could have easily ended up in the same situation. As their imaginary world dribbles into reality, their relationship transforms them both and they find new purpose.
Elisabeth Moss continues her seemingly inevitable march towards an Oscar with a finely nuanced performance that brings Shirley, kicking and screaming, to life. In some ways, this is a bookend to her role in Her Smell. She plays another tortured artist who spouts bile as a self-defensive mechanism and ultimately seeks redemption. Shirley finds it in Rose, who she breaks and builds back up into something stronger and fiercer. It’s an act of brutal kindness that is fascinating to watch. As Rose, Odessa Young more than holds her own against an acting heavyweight like Moss.
Decker’s film is at its best when it juxtaposes Shirley and Stanley’s thoroughly decayed co-dependency with Fred and Rose’s wilting union. It examines the way that relationships rot and crumble with the passage of time, and the toll that it takes on self-belief and emotional well-being. Shirley is less successful, however, at introducing elements of fantasy into the mix. The surreal flourishes are unnecessarily baroque, while the ghostly subplot is distracting. After all, Shirley is essentially about the very real horror of being human.