Going into this film, I had an acute awareness of what I was “supposed” to feel. Due to that sense I spent extra time figuring out how Shirley actually struck me. Director Josephine Decker’s take on literary giant Shirley Jackson’s later years is more creative non-fiction than biopic. It’s a character study used to dissect the decay of male dominance on female creativity. Based on Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and written by Sarah Gubbins, the film has four leading characters: Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a literary critic and professor, and a fictional married pair of grad students, Rose and Fred (Odessa Young, Logan Lerman), who move in with the other couple in an attempt to soak up their success.
The living arrangement between the four begins poorly, Hyman invites Rose and Fred into his home in order to distract Rose from her studies and thrust her into the kitchen—to make him “hot meals” of chicken and pot roast—and, of course, to keep an eye on Shirley. At this point the writer is struggling with anxiety, leading to agoraphobia and excess drinking. The relationship between Jackson and Hyman is so contentious it crackles. Yet, beyond the cleverly acerbic sparring of literary tongues, the cracks in each marriage become the catalyst for collapse.
Hyman resents Jackson’s brilliance, making him a controlling cad, and she bristles under his domination of her public image and her work life. (Hyman also enjoys flaunting his seduction of other women.) Rose and Fred have a simpler problem, he’s a bland self-centered chauvinist who is content to allow her intellect and dreams to dwindle, relegated to traditional gender norms, while he becomes a man of letters.
The contrast between genders is actually stunning. The two men strut around, pecking at each other like peacocks in a mating fury. The two women reach for each other, conflating their need for control of their own lives with sexual attraction and a strange savage sisterhood. The link between Shirley and Rose—as they push for some sense of symmetry beyond the confines of how the men in their lives define them—becomes the hook that yanks you into the film.
It is a story immersed in the visual language of an era, sepia toned and dewy with Southern Gothic sensibilities. Those visuals work well with the time and themes of Jackson’s work. There is also a mystery, flavoring those same sensibilities but doing little else. Spicier than that is the suppurating casual cruelty the characters lob at each other—like knife throwers at the circus, the trauma of every near miss more devastating than a strike could ever be. What some may see as eroticism, I saw as manipulation dipped in sensuality. Not really a problem when those moments are what make Shirley a thriller…
…then again perhaps I spoke too soon, Elisabeth Moss is luminous, exuding a premeditated yet frantically maniacal sheen. You believe she is Shirley and you question whether you’d want to help her or make your escape from her. The other actors put in solid work as well. The greatest compliment I can give Stuhlbarg is I instantly wanted to slap him and that feeling never let up. Well done. More so, you believe in the bizarre entanglement Shirley and Rose tumble into because of the magnetism between Moss and Young.
And that’s it. That’s the review. Whether or not you should see Shirley, I leave up to your own Southern Gothic sensibilities.