What if your favorite author turned out to be a instigative, agoraphobic shut-in encased in a toxic relationship with her husband? A crazy question, sure, but one explored with such vivid color in Josephine Decker’s entertaining psychodrama, SHIRLEY, that you yourself may start to feel a bit like its titular subject, crazed but never not entertained.
Melding the limbs of psychological horror with that of a steamy period piece and wrapping it around the skeleton of a biopic by focusing on the titular Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), acclaimed horror author of classics such as THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, SHIRLEY is just as transfixing as the woman at the center of the story as it looks at her strange and toxic relationship with her academic husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and their increasingly antagonistic relations with a young couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, respectively) that moves into their Northeastern home. With a visual look supported by Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s exquisitely grainy cinematography, Decker utilizes the sickly yellows of the Shirley home to transform its Northeastern setting into something that looks and feels like a Deep South potboiler, all sticky air and sweaty bodies trying in vain to hold their deeper desires and aggressions within. Indeed, everyone in Sarah Gubbins’ tight and transfixing script (based off a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell) has something to hide, but unlike Young and Lerman’s seemingly clean-cut lovebirds, who each have their own tempting longings and desires they hold from one another, Shirley and her husband seemingly revel in their less than savory sides. As soon as Young and Lerman’s Rose and Fred move in with the author and her husband, the constant assaults on their characters begin, with Shirley digging at Rose’s many insecurities blatantly among dinner and Stanley increasingly diluting Fred’s standing as not only as a prospective professor, but as a man. This drama, at times playing out like a trashy reality show but set in the 50’s and dealing with intellectuals, makes for the bulk of SHIRLEY’s entertainment and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
From their introductory scenes on, Moss and Stuhlbarg are simply electric as the instigative, toxic couple from hell. In the lead role, Ms. Moss, who always has a particular talent of playing women on edge, plays the author with a reserved energy that radiates with disdain for anyone around her, particularly in regards to Stuhlbarg as Shirley’s controlling husband. Like a ticking time bomb waiting for anyone to make a misstep and absorb her wrath of disturbingly observant criticisms, Shirley and Moss lend the film a persistent air of dread that bleeds into the other performers. As Rose and Fred do their best to walk on eggshell’s around Moss’s Shirley, Stuhlbarg’s Stanley willingly ingratiates himself into the mess of Shirley’s frazzled state with a sense of smarmy control as he is seemingly the only person on the planet of the Earth who can not only withstand the venomous insults from Shirley, but truly connect with her in their own strange language of harsh insults and personal hang-ups. It is in these interrelationships, between this old and cynical couple and the young and optimistic lovers, where SHIRLEY thrives as it reveals the deeper darkness of a its subject’s world.
Decker, once imbuing what seems to be a simple setup with frantic nerviness with her off-kilter MADELINE’S MADELINE, finds tantalizing observations in her characters’ interactions. As Rose and Fred become enveloped in the drama of Shirley and Stanley, Shirley and Rose begin to form a connection of their own; one that starts out as sour and slowly morphs into some unsettled lust between the two, but what each woman wants from the other remains a mystery as Gubbins’ script touches on themes of feminine independence and connection, even if the lesbian undertones begin to feel a little played out at certain moments. Even so, SHIRLEY has a cutting feminist air that displays a world where women are at the constant whims of their male colleagues and partners, whether as objects of sexual satisfaction or something more disposable as the real life case of a missing college student by the name of Paula Jeen Welden becomes the source of fascination and inspiration for Shirley’s current work, the book that will come to be called HANGSAMAN. By connecting a successful female author who nonetheless finds herself trapped in an authoritarian and toxic relationship with her husband to a young idealistic woman slowly learning of the male-dominated world she will soon fall victim to, Decker’s unrelenting look at the connections between damaged and lost women in the face of male suppression makes for a provocative piece of work.
While Rose and Fred are performed ably enough, in particular Ms. Young is enticing as a young, doe-eyed woman slowly but frantically coming into her own independence, the characters themselves are only there to heighten the complicated real-life relationship of Shirley and Stanley. In that turbulent relationship, which pivots between one-sided abuse to almost Macbethian collaboration between two venomous individuals, SHIRLEY explores the common avenue of an artist and their creative process and injects it with a style and concentrated voice that turns a movie about a writer caught in throes of writers block into a strange, off-kiter portrayal of women finding their own slices of independence in a constrictive male-dominated world. Whether SHIRLEY is accurate to the real life subjects is far from the matter; what Josephine Decker creates here is chilling enough to make even the real Shirley Jackson herself shudder.