No mere biopic, Shirley is a haunting portrait of author Shirley Jackson, telling a tale that didn’t actually happen. This is a fictional biography, and yet every moment rings true. Director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins have captured Jackson’s literary voice, while Elisabeth Moss has captured the late author’s very essence itself. Moss is so good here it’s scary, playing Jackson as a raging, neurotic mess prone to fits of crippling depression and bursts of brilliance. She’s a force to be reckoned with.
Shirley takes some of its cues from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, focusing on two couples – one older, one younger. The older pair are Shirley Jackson and her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). The younger pair is Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). The Nemsers have come to Vermont to live in Shirley and Stanley’s home, as Fred serves as an assistant to Stanley. On the train ride to first meet Shirley and Stanely, Rose reads Shirley’s story The Lottery, and immediately becomes aroused by its unflinching darkness. She and Fred sneak off to an empty part of the train to engage in passionate sex, and right from the jump, Shirley is establishing its themes: sex and horror.
Upon arriving at the house in Vermont, the Nemsers find Stanley to be boisterous and overly flirty, while Shirley is weary and even cruel. As the weeks progress, Fred and Stanley are busy teaching at Bennington College while Rose is left home alone with Shirley. The relationship between the two women is antagonistic at first – Shirley has no patience for Rose, and grows furious when Rose dares look at some papers on her desk. But over time, a bond begins to grow between the women. It’s a cutting, acidic bond, but it’s also something more. There’s an attraction between these two very different women, and neither quite seems to know what to make of it.
Running through the background of all of this is Shirley’s investigation into a missing college student – the inspiration for her eventual novel Hangsaman. Shirley fantasizes about the missing girl, using Rose as a stand-in. Rose even serves as inspiration for the book when she suggests that going missing might have been the only way the college student could get people to notice her. Tensions boil over, sexual liaisons unfold, and a streak of cruelty runs through seemingly every character here except Rose, who remains kind and therefore is the person most likely to be driven to madness by the darkness swirling around Shirley.
Decker’s direction, aided by cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, is surreal and hypnotic, her camera constantly on the move, sometimes swooping violently. It gives the proceedings a decidedly off-kilter atmosphere – one that’s heightened by meticulous sound design that adds train whistles, insect hums, and bird songs into scenes where these sorts of things shouldn’t belong. It’s as if we’ve been drawn fully into Shirley’s fractured headspace. There’s a version of this story that follows a standard Hollywood biopic template, but in Decker’s hands, Shirley is a challenging, unconventional work.
The experimental and dreamy visual style wouldn’t be nearly as powerful were it not for Moss’s performance. The actress brings a raw ferocity to the part – it’s a fearless performance, with Moss putting herself through the wringer. She limps and storms through the film, being soft and introspective one moment before suddenly unleashing a burst of terrifying violence. The cast, in general, is splendid, with Stuhlbarg standing out as the booming, lecherous Stanley. Indeed, the complicated relationship between Shirley and Stanley – they seem to both love and loathe each other – is fascinating in its complexities, and the way Stuhlbarg and Moss play off each other. And Young making us understand why her character is so drawn to Shirley. But this is Moss’s show, and her work here is genius.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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