Elisabeth Moss puts in a braruva performance as troubled real-life writer Shirley Jackson
Dir. Josephine Decker. US. 2020. 107mins
With her first three features, director Josephine Decker proved herself one of the most distinctive new stylists in American cinema. Following 2018’s acclaimed Madeline’s Madeline, she consolidates her reputation with Shirley; the first film she has not written herself but which shows as assertive an auteur signature as any of her work. Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell that offers an imaginative portrait of revered American writer Shirley Jackson, Shirley highlights a bravura performance by Elisabeth Moss (also a producer, along with Martin Scorsese as executive producer).
Shirley will find an eager audience at a cultural moment which increasingly values emotional expression
Decker gives a no less virtuoso performance behind the camera, but her hyper-expressionistic tendencies, coupled with the hothouse tenor of the drama, may leave viewers overwhelmed by the relentless emotional and stylistic intensity of it all. But given Moss’s devoted following, plus Decker’s own ascendant status, and the film’s determinedly feminist angle, Shirley is bound to connect strongly with adventurous art-house audiences.
Shirley Jackson’s own prestige should also be factored in, given that the author (1916-1965) is currently experiencing one of her intermittent rediscoveries, partly because of the Netflix’s re-imagining of her supernatural novel The Haunting of Hill House. When we meet her in the film, Jackson is best known for her provocative short story ‘The Lottery’, and is on the verge of writing her second novel, 1951’s ‘Hangsman’.
Shirley focuses on a young woman, Rose (Odessa Young), who arrives with her husband, academic Fred (Logan Lerman), to stay in the home of Jackson and lecturer husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) at Vermont’s Bennington College, where Fred has a teaching post. The newcomers are promptly caught up in the poisonously combative relationship between troubled Shirley and embittered, insecure Stanley. Initially hostile to and suspicious of Rose, whom Stanley overbearingly lumbers with the running of the house, Shirley gradually takes a liking to the young woman, which shades into seemingly mutual erotic attraction.
In her mind, Shirley also turns Rose into a double of Paula Weldon, a student whose disappearance becomes the basis for the new novel she sits down to write. As reality and fiction blur in Shirley’s and Rose’s minds, Decker’s flamboyant style takes flight. Throughout the film, Decker – along with DoP Sturla Brandth Grovlen and editor David Barker – pitches the style high, laying on blurred focus, extra-extreme close-ups, frenetic camera moves and hiccupping cuts, sometimes evoking characters’ emotional states but more generally creating an intensified mood that can feel exhausting rather than genuinely expressive.
The effect sometimes makes the acting feel uncomfortably abrasive: the performances are somewhat amplified to begin with but, further magnified through Decker’s stylistics, they can feel excessive. Stuhlbarg, as an academic who is in any case a narcissistic performer, often feels archly theatrical. And while Moss – who, incidentally, here looks uncannily like the real Jackson – at times exudes a grande dame malignity worthy of latter-day Bette Davis, some close-up shots of her snarling or looking borderline-satanic push Jackson’s self-styled ‘witch’ quality that bit over the edge. By contrast, up-and-coming Australian actress Young provides a nuanced centre to the film as Rose. And as Fred, who embodies the more toxic aspects of white-bread male Eisenhower-era conformity, Lerman brings a certain shiny blandness to his role, although that provides a useful base note against which to measure the film’s more pronounced extremities.
With its ultimate message that sexual and social ‘normality’ are themselves a form of madness — which perhaps only madness can cure — Shirley will find an eager audience at a cultural moment which increasingly values emotional expression. But many will find the film an over-rich brew that arguably stresses Jackson’s visionary inspiration at the expense of the craft, canniness and lucidity of a writer whose work was characterised by supreme control, even if her troubled life wasn’t.
Production companies: Killer Films, Los Angeles Media Fund
International sales: Cornerstone Films firstname.lastname@example.org
Producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Sue Naegle, Sarah Gubbins, Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman, Elisabeth Moss
Screenplay: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Cinematography: Sturla Brandth Grovlen
Editor: David Barker
Production design: Sue Chan
Main cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman