Movie Review: Shirley
By Matthew Huntley
June 27, 2020
“Shirley” is a slow burn psychological drama — quiet and perceptive, tense and unsettling. Its beauty and efficacy comes from our not knowing which direction it will take, and director Josephine Decker is bold enough to suggest several possibilities. Will it go the route of a thriller? A supernatural horror film? An erotic tale of seduction? It’s a testament to Decker as a storyteller, and to Sarah Gubbins as a writer, who adapted Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, that by choosing not to settle one on definitive theme or outcome, the film renders a greater effect on the audience, creating lingering feelings of dread and unease, which probably would have satisfied the real Shirley Jackson.
The film is a fictionalized depiction of a brief but tumultuous time in Jackson’s life. She was (and still is) the revered American writer best known for penning “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.” I’ve never read any of Jackson’s short stories or novels, but it’s another testament to “Shirley” that it makes me wish I had prior to seeing it. If the film is even partially truthful, namely in the way it portrays Jackson as a writer who suffered greatly for her work, agonizing over each sentence until it was just right, it stands to reason her stories must be as chilling and memorable as the other characters in the film say they are. Reading them beforehand likely would have enveloped me in this film’s twisted world that much more.
Accurate or not, Jackson’s mythical life makes for an absorbing tale in and of itself and provides a stirring platform on which to explore the dimensions of its two female protagonists, one of whom is Shirley herself (Elisabeth Moss) and the other a young, curious woman named Rose (Odessa Young), whose journey toward establishing her own identity is the crux of the narrative. Rose is the better half of her new husband, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), a bright-eyed, boy-faced charmer who has been hired by Shirley’s unctuous husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), to be his assistant at Bennington College in Vermont, where Stanley is an in-demand, hotshot literature professor.
It is the early 1950s and the Nemsers are naïve, green and in love, although their passion for each other may only be physical. The depth and dynamics of their mostly traditional husband-wife relationship are tested shortly after Rose and Fred move in with Shirley and Stanley, which is an unorthodox arrangement but something Fred insists upon Rose just until they can find a home of their own and he completes his dissertation.
Regardless of Fred’s reasoning, Rose is uncomfortable with the setup, especially when Stanley beseeches her to more or less act as his reclusive wife’s housekeeper and caretaker. Shirley herself isn’t keen on the idea of two strangers living in her home. She’s immediately cautious and suspicious of the newlyweds and her guarded feelings are no doubt the byproducts of her not having left the house for the past two months and depending on vices such as alcohol, cigarettes and Alka-Seltzer to help keep her on schedule to deliver her latest novel (the film takes place after The New Yorker published her much-lauded and broadly-read “The Lottery”).
Day after day, Shirley stares at her typewriter and vacillates over putting words to the page when she soon takes a peculiar interest in the unsuspecting Rose. She’s strangely attracted to this young woman in ways that range from physical and psychological to maternal and sexual. To her, there’s a strange connection between them; in fact, it’s Shirley who first picks up on Rose being pregnant (a secret Rose was adamant about keeping to herself).
What’s intriguing about the way Shirley presses Rose and gazes upon her from a distance is that we never quite know whether Shirley’s intentions toward her new muse are friendly and protective or domineering and exploitative. It could be the former, because Rose is vulnerable and often left alone at night by Fred, who spends many evenings on Bennington’s campus, a situation Shirley knows all too well after we see how overly affectionate Stanley behaves toward other women (and he isn’t afraid to show it). Perhaps Shirley wants to spare Rose the same feelings of despondency and resentment.
And yet, Shirley may also view Rose as someone she can finally control after what we assume has been years of her feeling dominated by Stanley. Her desire to manipulate and shape Rose gains an extra dimension when Shirley likens her to a local girl named Paula, who recently disappeared and whom Shirley has made the subject of her latest work-in-progress. As it turns out, Paula attended Bennington College and was one of Stanley’s students. In blurry, distorted visions, Shirley imagines Rose as Paula and attempts to give the missing girl a voice.
Clearly, there is a lot to unpack in “Shirley” and it doesn’t always move at a pace that keeps us traditionally entertained (it can be slow and anesthetizing at times), but it’s always watchable and proves most fulfilling in hindsight. I admire that one of its agendas seems to be that it has no single agenda — it’s a mix of many genres and avoids being easily categorizable. What’s certain about it is that it deconstructs its female characters richly and thoroughly. Shirley and Rose are two fascinating individuals: women with whom we mostly sympathize but sometimes condemn for their lewd and immature behavior, even though we understand their need to rebel against the patriarchal society of the 1950s and ultimately emerge out of the shadows of their husbands.
It should come as no surprise that Elisabeth Moss easily sinks her teeth into Shirley. Moss has made a career out of playing persecuted women in shows like “Mad Men” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” and films like “The Invisible Man.” With “Shirley,” she maintains her reputation for being a fearless actress who’s willing to expose herself and be made vulnerable, and in spite of some of Shirley’s likeness to her prior roles, Moss and Decker still manage to make this character unique and fresh. The same can be said of Young, whose role as Rose is even trickier because it’s Rose who goes through the greatest transformation from obedient housewife to formidable adversary to both Shirley and Fred. With her strong expressions and body language, Young gives us a palpable sense of Rose’s mental and physical turmoil as she struggles to find her place in a man’s world.
As much as the screenplay develops Shirley and Rose, it also under-develops Stanley and Fred. Whereas the female characters are complicated and multi-dimensional, the men, by comparison, seem one-note and stereotypical. The screenplay paints them as egotistical, secretive and philandering, and we unfortunately leave the film not feeling like we really got to know them or that the story saw them as anything but hurdles to the women’s freedom and happiness. This is an overused device in stories about female empowerment, and while I understand it provides a catalyst for the women to explore who they are, I think it would have been more courageous of “Shirley” to give Stanley and Fred some standalone scenes, perhaps allowing the film to become a four-person character study instead of just two. As it is, I couldn’t help but think the male characters got shortchanged, which made them (and the film) less interesting.
Still, such a flaw doesn’t dilute the lasting power of “Shirley,” and what’s also noteworthy about the film is just how visually and aurally striking it is. Despite the underlying tension and shifting of psyches of its characters, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography, Sue Chan’s production design and Kirby Feagan’s art direction are paradoxically warm and inviting, capturing the exterior and interiors of Shirley and Stanley’s multi-storied, ivy enwrapped house in such a way that our bodies are completely relaxed as our eyes soak in the plush images, from the tall vegetation on the outside to the creaky wooden floors, stacks of books, shapely lamps and multiple throw blankets on the inside. Combined with the sounds of crickets, birds and wind, “Shirley” is tantamount to taking a pleasant nature or museum walk, which is ironic given the dark, bitter nature of Shirley and Rose’s situations.
I didn’t expect “Shirley” to be as technically appealing as much as narratively gripping, but Decker and her crew have gone beyond our expectations on both fronts, and despite the story deliberately taking liberty with the truth, where I think it is truthful is in its depiction of the creative process, in this case writing. Not everyone is creative, myself included, but I think we all fall for the idea there’s a formula for being inventive. “Shirley” reminds us such a formula doesn’t exist and what gets put on a page, a wall, a canvas, or carved out of a piece of wood, etc., is often contextual and a snapshot of a particular time in the creator’s life. Inspiration can come at any time but we can’t force it to appear.
What’s more is the film argues against any formula that produces false and insincere results, specifically when it comes to women being made secondary to men. Shirley and Rose show us that whenever a system forces us to be false about who we are, it can be scary and unsettling, even drive us mad. Perhaps it was an aspect of this fear the real Jackson knew and tapped into so well with her writing. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll have a better idea once I read her work.