It’s hard to explain why Shirley gloriously appeals on so many levels (although I will try my best). As a biopic, it’s an unconventional one, documenting the life of Shirley Jackson, the renowned horror writer behind The Haunting of Hill House, The Missing Girl, and The Lottery. As an acting spectacle, Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg are in their element, weaving an ‘odd couple’ relationship of power and dominance that is fascinating yet deeply unsettling. In any other directorial hands, this may have been routine. But in the hands of Josephine Decker – fresh from her critically acclaimed film Madeline’s Madeline – Shirley becomes a beguiling and dizzying mix of gothic horror and dreamlike fantasy that’s wildly entertaining.
It’s a stark contrast from Michael Almereyda’s Tesla, for example, a film that takes ambitious swings at reinventing the conventions of the biopic but tediously upends all its interesting qualities with offbeat inclusions of voiceovers and Ethan Hawke singing Tears for Fears ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’ (I kid you not). Thankfully, Decker’s film doesn’t resort to pretentious gimmicks that destroy its tone. The beauty that Shirley conjures up from Sarah Gubbins’ multifaceted screenplay (based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel) is something far more subversive that’s almost befitting of the stories Shirley Jackson created in her books.
There’s a synergy with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse in how Shirley conducts itself. Both films showcase the inner unravelling of the human condition, blurring effortlessly between reality and psychosexual fantasies as it descends into its dark, allegorical hell. How Shirley differentiates comes down to its craft, examining the grounded nature of writer’s block and its subsequent madness from its recluse writer. But at the heart of it, it celebrates the dedication, aptly understanding how writers see the world differently and how their conceptions are visualised to the point of obsession. It’s fascinated with the idea of creation and its subsequent destruction. And under Decker’s keen eye, that pursuit functions as a twisted tale on how life imitates art, wrapped in the curiosity of an investigative mystery of a missing college student in 50s America.
The film acts as a psychological litmus test. Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), a young married couple are the perfect entrapped candidates to match the eccentric oddity of Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). They are invited to stay in their home. Their hopeful idealism has the world at their feet – she’s newly pregnant, and he’s pushing the heights of academia. She is assigned housework duties, entrusted to look after Shirley. He is ambitious with a preppy charm to climb the career ladder. But in this ‘house of horrors’ where it deliberately invades personal spaces and rendering its viewers uncomfortable, it consciously weaves in themes on feminism, motherhood, and male patriarchy.
Not all its ambitious aspects land, but enthralled by its premise, it has an undeniable enjoyment and fun in bringing its story to life. Decker relishes opening Pandora’s box of projected, claustrophobic fears and emotions in testing the rigours of its relationships. It’s a deft encapsulation of how Shirley sees Rose; innocent, pure, naïve – the perfect muse for her book and her subsequent imagination. But for Rose, developing a co-dependent relationship towards Shirley, it’s a reciprocal feeling, eventually succumbing to the entrenched and unsatisfied worldview that Shirley inhabits and sees.
Without giving too much away, Decker does an impeccable job at highlighting the feminine dissatisfaction, women tied to the societal roles that the world has chosen for them and long to break free of such boundaries. There’s a touch of The Handmaid’s Tale and even Björn Runge’s The Wife – women seeking control of their lives and their desires. As Shirley, Moss understands this remit; she looks at Rose with a curious and vulnerable desire in comparison to her condescending and ego-centric husband who is insistent on an alpha male dominance within the household. “Let’s pray for a boy – the world is too cruel for girls,” she says. With the help of cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen and editor David Barker, that feminine exploration is often mystical, a state of flux where audiences are unsure where the boundaries of reality and fiction merge or end. Odessa Young’s dual role as Rose and the missing girl help plant that seed of doubt, right through to its chilling conclusion.
Elisabeth Moss, an actress who can do no wrong in her career, is downright fearless. As Shirley, she is blunt, jealously cruel, with an unnerving devilish smile that always keeps her audience guessing her intentions. She has a knack for playing complex characters that are more than what they appear on the surface, and that tradition is once again honoured. Alongside Michael Stuhlbarg, you have someone who’s Shirley’s antithesis but for different yet calculating reasons. But as a force, the psychosis of a writer is a journey that is perversive and tragic.
There’s a method to the madness, and Decker crafts a film primed for multiple watches. It’s unpredictable. It doesn’t make it easy. But captivating, nevertheless.
SHIRLEY screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. Out in UK cinemas 30th October 2020.