Acclaimed American author Shirley Jackson, best known for her work in horror and Gothic-styled thrillers, worked for two decades before her untimely death at age 48. Throughout her prolific career she wrote a total of six novels, two memoirs, several books on parenting, and over 200 short stories. Her last few years were spent in seclusion as her health steadily deteriorated. Yet despite her early passing, Jackson left behind a fascinating literary legacy that has recently been discovered by an entirely new audience.
The new movie “Shirley” may sound like a biopic but that label doesn’t really stick. Loosely based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, the film erases Jackson’s four children and uses the perspective of a fictional young couple among other things. Instead this is more of a biographical sketch that imagines Jackson’s life by placing her in a space that could pass for one of the author’s own short stories. Director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins prove to be the right people to tackle this reality versus imagination mindbender.
Often tagged as “experimental”, Decker seems to have an inquisitive and explorative nature that often comes through in her filmmaking. While I’ve often struggled to get in tune with some of her work, here she cunningly melds numerous elements of her movie – narrative with visual, psychological with tangible, genre flavor with stinging social rebuke. It’s such rich and evocative filmmaking. It also doesn’t hurt to have someone like Elisabeth Moss as your lead.
Moss plays Shirley Jackson at that stage where her health was on the decline and she hadn’t left her North Bennington, Vermont home in two months. Her domineering womanizer of a husband Stanley Hyman (a devilishly good Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches at Bennington College during the day and at night attends numerous faculty ‘gatherings’ often frequented by young co-eds. I’ll let you do the math.
We learn all of this and more through the eyes of Rose (Odessa Young), a freshly married young woman who moves to North Bennington with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman). He’s been hired as a teaching assistant for Stanley while Rose plans on auditing classes at the university. Much to Shirley’s chagrin, Stanley invites the couple to stay with them until they can get their feet on the ground. Rose quickly has her plans dashed after Stanley sneakily puts her in charge of cooking and cleaning while introducing Fred to his college inner-circle.
Meanwhile Shirley observes it all, in one sense keenly aware of what’s happening yet seemingly on the precipice of a mental breakdown. Moss’ frizzy crop of hair and horn-rimmed glasses make her a spitting image of Shirley Jackson, and she brilliantly paints the author as an unsettling enigma. The townsfolk thinks she’s gone sick in the head while Stanley explains away her eccentricities and abrasiveness (such as masking her cutting cynicism as premonitions).
Meanwhile, Shirley slowly starts finding inspiration in Rose and in the mysterious disappearance of a local college girl. She begins furiously working on a new novel (what would be her 1951 book “Hangsaman”) getting closer to Rose in the process. But in Decker’s wickedly off-kilter sphere Jackson’s motives are always cloudy and we’re constantly wondering whether Rose helping to free Shirley from her isolation and misanthropy or if the seasoned writer is spinning a web and the young woman is trapped inside.
Like much of Shirley Jackson’s work, the film sets you down in a familiar real-world space only to subtly dissolve the boundaries between reality and illusion. Squeezing meaning out of some scenes can be a challenge and at times frustrating. For example, hard to resolve moments of romantic tension (or is it dark eroticism) can feel out-of-the-blue and weirdly disconnected. But Decker paints with expressionistic strokes, infusing scenes with a woozy, hallucinatory quality. Intense closeups, shifts in focus, ghostly gazes, slightly disorienting handheld camerawork – it’s all used to delightful effect.
Aside from its sharp psychological edge, “Shirley” gives a clear-eyed look at women in early 1950’s America and the modern day reverberations. It’s told entirely from the female perspective, showing two women trapped in worlds quietly dominated by their husbands￼. Moss’ uncompromising and self-contained performance is award-worthy, especially in the scenes with Stuhlbarg where the two vividly bring Sarah Grubbins’ searing dialogue to life. Not every scene gels together seamlessly but the look, tone, and curdling sense of unease keeps you glued to every frame.
VERDICT – 4 STARS