DIRECTED BY: Josephine Decker
STARRING: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Orlagh Cassidy and Robert Wuhl
Renowned horror writer Shirley Jackson is on the precipice of writing her masterpiece when the arrival of newlyweds upends her meticulous routine and heightens tensions in her already tempestuous relationship with her philandering husband. The middle-aged couple, prone to ruthless barbs and copious afternoon cocktails, begins to toy mercilessly with the naïve young couple at their door.
Based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley tells the story of a newlywed couple, Fred and Rose Nemser, arriving and moving in with reclusive novelist Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman for a short period of time at their Bennington house. One day Stanley expresses his concerns about his wife to the couple and asks Rose if she can look after Shirley, which she reluctantly agrees to. As Shirley becomes interested in a case of a missing student, which becomes the premise for her next novel, Rose attempts to adjust to married life but becomes curious about Shirley and her work, leading to her becoming somewhat of a muse for the author.
While the film is focused on real people such as Shirley Jackson, an author known for her horror stories, particularly The Haunting of Hill House, and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman was a literary critic that did teach at Bennington College, this film is definitely not to be taken as a biopic, with these two becoming characters in an another story. With the novel adapted by Sarah Gobbins, the film primarily focuses on how this young couple with aspirations to further themselves in their studies under the roof of selfish artists that will break down their optimistic outlook on life through mind games and emotional warfare, you come to realise that no sooner did they step inside the their house they already lost. Knowing that Shirley Jackson was suffering from agoraphobia in real life, there’s a certain unease when we see her moving about the house, the claustrophobic feeling she gets within the confides of her along with her imagination, constantly thinking about the real-life disappearance of the missing student that’s the basis for her new novel, that makes for some interesting filmmaking choices by Josephine Decker. This is my first Josephine Decker film and I thought the film was well directed, with some really good costume designs by Amela Baksic, with some lovely cinematography by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, and I was really impressed by the haunting score composed by Tamar-kali. With the drama not being a realistic biopic portrayal kind of film, Elisabeth Moss has a lot of material to play with her as Shirley Jackson and I thought she gave a great performance, an artist who at times can be plagued by her own mind but she has this ferocious side to her that makes her an enticing enigma to Rose. Michael Stuhlbarg also gives a great performance as Stanley, a womaniser with a superiority complex and his back-and-forth scenes with Moss are engaging to watch. Odessa Young also gives a great, impressive performance as Rose, particularly in the scenes she shares with Elisabeth Moss and especially a scene involving mushrooms which is a highlight of the film.
Whilst I admired what Decker was doing here with the genre and the feverish dream style narrative, I did feel the films runtime and started to lose interest with its narrative structure, especially in the middle act, starting to question the endgame and when we got there I didn’t feel anything for it. I know there’s sequences there to make you feel disoriented but I just couldn’t connect the structure.
While Decker’s direction is really good, with really good performances from Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhbarg and Odessa Young, and an equally impressive score from Tamar-kali, the story and narrative execution of Shirley just didn’t work for me.