‘Shirley’ Review: Elisabeth Moss’ Shirley Jackson walks a tightrope between chaos and control

This review was adapted into an essay for HorrorWood and published with them on September 18, 2020.

Shirley (2020)

Josephine Decker, director of experimental drama Madeline’s Madeleine, explores the life of American horror writer Shirley Jackson in her newest film, Shirley. Jackson, who has written six novels, two memoirs and over 200 short stories, is perhaps best known for ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle,’ ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ and her short story ‘The Lottery.’ The former two were adapted for film and television in 2018, and ‘The Lottery’ is currently being adapted into a feature film by Paramount Pictures. The short, which was first published in The New Yorker in 1948, remains one of the most controversial stories ever published by the newspaper, and it is actually where Shirley — written by Sarah Gubbins — begins.

Rose (Odessa Young) reads ‘The Lottery’ for the first time on the train and, unlike most who are deeply disturbed by it, has a different reaction: she calls it “terrifically horrible” and immediately drags her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) into the train toilets to have passionate sex. The young couple happen to be on their way to Shirley’s house, which she shares with her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a literary critic and professor at an all-women’s college, where Fred will be joining him as a teaching assistant.

Rose was looking forward to meeting Shirley, but her dark and abrasive nature resulted in great disappointment — if anyone fits the tortured writer trope, it’s certainly Shirley Jackson. Set in the 1950s, the women find themselves defined by strong gender norms. Shirley’s acerbic nature allows her to easily break conventions when around others, but it’s harder for when when she’s around Stanley — her harshest critic. There’s a scene where Shirley anxiously awaits for his approval, on what becomes her second novel ‘The Hangsaman,’ which depicts this perfectly. He puts a lot of pressure on her to succeed, reminding Shirley earlier in the film: “You know how insulted I am by mediocrity.”

Stanley coerces the couple into staying with them and tasks Rose — who has potential for academia but is pregnant — with housewifely duties such as keeping Shirley company and helping with the housework. For her novel, Shirley finds inspiration from the real unsolved disappearance of 18-year-old Paula Jean Welden — but she needs a muse, which is where Rose comes in. While the pair dislike one another at first, they grow closer as they come to find that they both share an affinity for the macabre. Shirley explains that people think her “dark thoughts are going to infect them,” and perhaps they infect Rose. Sometimes we cannot tell what’s real and what’s imagined as the line between fiction and reality blur together with the unravelling psyche of these two women — a skill Decker is known for. This draws comparison with the film’s source material — the novel of the same name by Susan Merrell — as it blends some facts of Jackson’s life with a fictional dynamic and altered timelines.

Moss’ filmography, with the likes of The Handmaid’s Tale, Her Smell and The Invisible Man, all showcase her natural talent for portraying unease, paranoia and mania. Shirley is no different as Moss captures Jackson’s vulnerability perfectly and, with her tired and unkempt appearance, looks uncannily like the troubled writer. Moss gives the performance her all as she walks on a tightrope between chaos and control, depicting Shirley as irreverent and unpredictable. She tests Rose’s patience by wandering off into the woods, playing with poisonous mushrooms and more. The house, Shirley and Stanley all possess dark energy — something that takes over Rose in a way that empowers her to become a stronger woman.

In the style of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we get to watch some fascinating and difficult dynamics unfold between these two couples who live under one suffocating roof. The score, set design and atmosphere really capture the mindset of Shirley, and eventually Rose. Shirley and Rose’s dynamic proves to be the most interesting (the men staying in the background), with their relationship dipping into female desire. At times, Shirley is reminiscent of the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis — delivering harsh insults from a strong, deep voice — and other times she appears gentle, overly anxious and muted by mental illness.

The film takes a while to get going, but it doesn’t exactly get where you want it to go — in some ways, this is underwhelming, but it also has so much more to offer. Shirley is not just a psychodrama, but is a tribute to Jackson herself. It brings her to life like a character from one of her own novels, depicting her as both powerful and unstable, while still capturing Jackson’s dark sense of humour. “I’m a witch, didn’t anyone tell you?” Shirley asks, becoming one of her own monsters.

Shirley is available on Digital HD from June 5th in the USA.

A freelance film and tv writer from England, who enjoys horror films, cats and middle-aged actresses.

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