Review: Shirley

Decades after her death in 1965, Shirley Jackson’s shadow looms over American horror, continuing to make a space in the genre for a female point of view originally shaped by mid-century domestic unease and social isolation. Film and TV adaptations have recreated her tableaus of loneliness, communicating the ostracization, clever nastiness, and small-town toxicity that defined so many of her works. But what gaps in our understanding of Jackson herself are left behind by “The Lottery,” or The Haunting of Hill House, or We Have Always Lived in the Castle? Josephine Decker and Sarah Gubbins’s Shirley attempts to address what we don’t know about the renowned author, and the result is a fever dream of anxiety and jealousy, with a captivatingly prickly lead performance from Elisabeth Moss that gives us a glimpse into the myriad frustrations and resentments that shaped the titular author.

An adaptation of the 2015 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley unfolds like one of Jackson’s own stories, with a pent-up heroine, a philandering husband, and a small-town mystery that defies explanation. This is, of course, a circular phenomenon: As a writer, Jackson poured her own dramas and traumas into her texts—her husband’s many affairs, his simultaneous support and control of her, her agoraphobia—and so Shirley both pays her homage while mimicking her own writing patterns. So it goes that we don’t meet Shirley first, but instead, are introduced to a young woman reading her work. Former co-ed Rose (Odessa Young), a macabre smile on her face after finishing reading Jackson’s “The Lottery,” seduces her professor husband Fred (Logan Lerman) during a train ride. They seem like nice young kids, but something about Jackson’s writing titillates Rose, transforming her into someone else—someone freer, and someone more reckless.

That train delivers them to Bennington, Vermont, where Fred and Rose make their way to  Shirley’s doorstep; with its impenetrable armor of overgrown vines, the Jackson home looks well on its way to becoming the subject of the neighborhood’s whispers. The connection is through Fred, who is starting his first teaching job at the same college where Shirley’s husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor of myth and folklore, is an admired tour de force and known ladies’ man. At the party, which is in full swing when Rose and Fred arrive, Stanley is wearing a leaf crown, roaming the rooms, flirting and gallivanting—and then there’s Shirley (Moss). A crowd surrounds her, reveling in her and Stanley’s antagonistic-but-affectionate bickering, demanding to know what Shirley is writing next (“A little novella I’m calling ‘none of your goddamn business,’” she cracks), and delighting in Shirley’s utter disinterest in them (“Betty, Debby, Cathy, you’re all the same to me”). They adore her, and maybe they also fear her, but in that moment, Shirley is a party favor. She’s performing a version of herself for them—the nagging wife, the antisocial genius, the condescending elitist—and how much of that is authentic is in question.

In private, though, Shirley is a mess. She’s struggling to write. Most days, she doesn’t leave her bed. She barely eats, instead chain-smoking and drinking. Aware of Shirley’s increasing disconnection from reality, and too haughty to do any chores himself, Stanley offers free room and board to Fred and Rose if Rose could do some light housekeeping. The young couple warily agrees, thinking that the proximity to Stanley will be good for Fred’s career, and the proximity to Shirley potentially thrilling—unknowing, though, that first Stanley, and then Shirley, have their own designs on the couple. Mind games, psychological pressures, little stunts. Fred and Rose are a game to Stanley and Shirley, but even as the older pair unspools their manipulations, a bond develops between Shirley and Rose. A shared sense of unfulfillment, an interest in learning what happened to a girl who went missing from Bennington, and a rejection of accepted social norms seem to unite the women—or is Rose just the victim of another one of Shirley’s tricks?

Throughout Shirley, Decker envelops us into a miasma of desaturation and shadow. Every day seems cloudy, every room underlit, like we’re peering through a looking glass or porthole, spying on these events instead of being invited to observe them. Moments go from benign to sinister: A group of young women leaning against a tree suddenly have climbed onto its limbs, almost straddling its branches; a pleasant dinner curdles after Shirley’s jabs at Rose, and solidifies into something ugly when another one of Stanley’s affairs is revealed. And like so many of Jackson’s own works, everyone here seems to have a hidden motivation, leading to unlikely alliances that come together and then dissolve and then reform over the course of the film, lending an unnerving tension throughout.

Throughout it all, Moss plays Shirley as a spider spinning a web—not necessarily evil in her intentions, but just doing what she naturally does, with all the debilitating venom and mercurial intensity and desperate desire that entails. “A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” she spits to Stanley when he complains about her ignorance of their home; moments later, she vows, “I’m going to get better. I promise. I will.” Moss has always done well with 180-degree turns, and she makes Shirley a woman simultaneously thriving on whiplash and decimated by rejection. Yet the movie doesn’t lose sight of the author’s humanity, and of the joys and disappointments that were part of her profession or her gender. Her set jaw in a dressing room while shopping for new clothes because her old ones don’t fit; her conversations with Rosie about love, and their commiseration over the sacrifices women make to keep up appearances. There’s a grounded quality to Moss’s Shirley that counters the film’s more fantastical elements, including how it brings to life the events of Jackson’s novel, cross cutting between Shirley’s frantic typing and the missing girl whose narrative she imagines.

Moss is a whirlwind; the trio of Stuhlbarg, Young, and Lerman is quite strong; and Decker and Gubbins build an illuminating, if factually inventive, version of Jackson. Where Shirley falters, though, is how committed it becomes to molding itself in the form of Jackson’s own writing. Often in Jackson’s texts, the protagonist’s first-person narration shared their perspective, offering some ideological certainty to us as readers even as the characters found themselves in inexplicable circumstances. Gubbins’s script uses Jackson-style spooky touches throughout—mistaken identities; occult-like rituals—but doesn’t offer that same inner monologue, and a late-movie development that would benefit from additional contextualization feels incomplete. Is it creepy? Of course! But there’s an anticlimactic feeling to it, too, and its imprecision takes away from all the other ways Shirley is quite intentional.

B+

“Shirley” is now streaming on Hulu and available on demand.

Roxana Hadadi writes about film, television, and culture with sides of judgment and thirst. She is a Tomatometer-approved critic on Rotten Tomatoes and a member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and the Online Film Critics Society. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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