Director: Josephine Decker
Writer: Sarah Gubbins (script), Susan Scarf Merrell (novel)
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
Producers: Sarah Gubbins, David Hinojosa, Simon Horsman, Elisabeth Moss, Sue Naegle, Jeffrey Soros
Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen
Editor: David Barker
Running time: 108mins
What’s the story: Author Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her professor husband (Stuhlbarg) take in younger couple Fred (Lerman) and Rose (Young). As Shirley begins writing a new book, Rose becomes intrigued by her.
What’s the verdict: A horror-comedy of manners, a dreamlike exploration of the creative process, and a celebration of female sexuality at its most earthy, Shirley is a spicy delight.
Elisabeth Moss is on career best form as troubled novelist Shirley Jackson, best known for The Haunting of Hill House. Unafraid to embrace the cruel self-loathing of a woman who alternated between manic bursts of creativity and bed-bound depression, Moss brings an irresistible magnetism to her portrayal of the famed writer of the macabre. Be it through a glint in her blue-fire eyes, malevolent smirk or heartrending moments of fear and doubt.
The actor began 2020 with horror hit The Invisible Man, but Shirley is far more rewarding. If subtitling it The Inconsequential Men is slightly mean on the film’s XY characters, it nonetheless remains most drawn to the women.
Issue has been taken with the depiction of Jackson here, including some comment from her children. But, like Scarf Merrell, the filmmakers have been at pains to point out this is a fiction. This Jackson is as much as a character in of the writer’s darker books, as she is a reading of the real life person.
The film opens on Rose Nemser (Young, a revelation), travelling to the college town of Bennington, Vermont with husband Fred (Lerman). After finishing Jackson’s chilling New Yorker short story The Lottery, Rose spirits her man to a train bathroom to exorcise her lust.
Arriving at Beddington, the young couple join a party at the home of Jackson and her professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Stuhlbarg, wonderfully unctuous). Fred has secured them temporary lodgings with the older couple, which he intends to use to progress his career in academia. Meanwhile, Rose is drawn to the caustic, irritable author.
Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel, Shirley is most immediately reminiscent of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Locked in a toxic, though strangely productive co-dependent relationship, Shirley and Stanley’s psychodrama begins to infect Rose and Fred’s marriage… in all manner of ways.
A director who resists restricting her movies to one genre, Decker here sprinkles folk horror and psychological mystery onto the WASP-ish apple pie setting. Witchcraft appears early on as Shirley guesses Rose’s pregnancy. Medicinal and mind-altering properties of nature’s bounty assist the older woman introducing the younger to the thornier sides of sexuality and creativity.
Unsettling, oneiric sequences portray Jackson chasing ghostly figures who will become characters in her latest novel (an unnamed story about a local girl who vanished). Rose adopts Shirley’s mannerisms in a case of intellectual possession.
A la Antichrist, the natural world is depicted as wondrous and terrifying (kudos to cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s intimate, shallow focus visuals).
But where Lars von Trier’s film was about destruction, Shirley is about creation. An act solely reserved for the ladies, be it Shirley’s book, Rose’s baby (or the meals she is constantly preparing). Stanley and Fred smother their inactivity in drink, sex and self-importance.
Elements of Jackson’s work are weaved throughout, plus autobiographical details such as her agoraphobia and mental and physical ailments.
Decker’s previous film was the fitfully frustrating, but ultimately worthwhile Madeline’s Madeline. Shirley marks a significant advance for the filmmaker and is not to be missed.