Shirley review – Elisabeth Moss anchors darkly compelling literary psychodrama

A perversely entertaining take on a brief period of Shirley Jackson’s life gives the star one of her most daring roles to date

As willfully unconventional as a literary portrait could possibly be, Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker’s take on Shirley Jackson is a thrillingly perverse example of what happens when the shackles of biopic formula are cast aside. Based on Shirley: A Novel, the acclaimed book from Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley tells of a fictitious dynamic, an imagined period where a younger couple moved in with Jackson and her husband, but weaves in known details about the reclusive horror writer’s life and personality. It’s a strange construction but one that feels fitting given what we know of her, a woman who found reality and the rules that came with it to be rather pedestrian. It’s as unusual a film as she was an author and one imagines she’d get a devious kick out of the dark places the film takes us to.

Elisabeth Moss, an actor who can seemingly do anything at this stage of her career, is Shirley, still receiving both praise and disgust from those around her for The Lottery, a widely read short story about small town savagery published in the New Yorker. She lives with her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a controlling bon vivant who both amuses and annoys but he cares for her when she’s in one of her many downward spirals, refusing to leave the house for months on end. Their rocky relationship is complicated further when Stanley’s new teaching assistant Fred (Logan Lerman) and wife Rose (Odessa Young), move into their home for a short period. Shirley is displeased with their presence but soon becomes fascinated with Rose, recognising a shared affinity for the macabre.

There are obvious echoes of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? here as we watch an older couple rip into both each other and their younger houseguests but Decker is interested in expanding her focus beyond regurgitating insults. In the opening scene we see Rose finish reading The Lottery on a train journey to the house and rather than express repulsion, she’s oddly aroused and immediately takes her husband to the toilet to have frantic sex. Her initial attempts to charm Shirley are indelicately batted away but the pair slowly figure out a rhythm with the author teasing out a strangeness that Rose had been keeping under wraps while playing the role of a polite wife. Both women are living in a period, the late 50s, of restrictive gender expectations and under Shirley’s informal tutelage, Rose experiences a radical awakening.

But there’s a tragedy in Rose’s transformation for Shirley because even though in many ways, she has given up on performing the role of a subservient wife, she’s stuck with a boorish showboating husband who abuses their open marriage with endless local dalliances regardless of any embarrassment it might cause her. He’s also a drain on her financially and an insufferably self-serving critic of her work. There’s an understandably dour view of men at the time, especially those working in academia and how they see their wives. While Shirley might break convention around others, she finds it harder around Stanley, shown quite beautifully in a scene near the end as she nervously awaits his verdict on her new book. By taking care of her, he’s also stifling the woman she is, a difficult dynamic that’s fascinating for us to watch.

There’s a hypnotic perversity to the characters and how they interact, never meeting our expectations and Decker’s direction is equally peculiar and unpredictable. It’s essentially a one-location film with what appears to be mostly natural lighting and through often brutal sound design and a suffocatingly sustained atmosphere, we’re trapped with the foursome as they push and pull at each other. It’s an uncomfortable film, designed to provoke and prod, but it’s richly rewarding, thanks in great part to some superlative performances. Moss, who has been hemmed in of late with the repetitive nature of The Handmaid’s Tale, is on fine form here, arguably the best we’ve seen from her, recalling the mania of Her Smell but with a tighter control over her character’s excesses. She’s utterly transfixing as she tears into those around her but Moss never loses sight of Shirley’s vulnerability, a character who’s never one thing or the other, compelling to watch unfold as she oscillates between sweet and sour. There’s also a believably odious turn from Stuhlbarg, selling the couple’s toxic chemistry while Young is fearlessly able to match the pair with probably the toughest role in the film, descending with them in order to ultimately ascend with her own agency.

There’s a lot here to digest, a bitter cocktail with many confounding flavours and its abrasiveness will prove tough-going for some, especially those in search of a more polite and familiarly structured literary biopic. But for those willing to sink into the depths with Shirley, it’s a delicious journey down.

  • Shirley is showing at the Sundance film festival with a release date yet to be announced


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