Recommendation: A haunting fiction narrative based on real life facts. A staggering performance (yet again) from Elisabeth Moss. Shirley is an incredible piece on an equally singular literary figure. 8.5/10.
IMDB Synopsis: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.
Shirley is an intimate, unsettling, and unwavering vignette into the life of groundbreaking horror writer Shirley Jackson. Not a traditional retelling, director Josephine Decker chose to use real life facts and events in Shirley’s life coupled with a fictitious setting to weave her tale, resulting in an engaging, entertaining, and sometimes haunting psuedo-biopic. Tightly focused, the film eschews a broad lifelong story for a tight year-ish period as she conceives and writes her iconic Hangsaman. Utilizing a talented yet small principle cast, the brightest star is undoubtedly Elisabeth Moss as the flawed, tortured, yet brilliant author.
The film sets Shirley (Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the later stages of life, living in North Bennington, VT. Shirley is reclusive, enigmatic, and a socially caustic woman, while her husband is a much loved—aka philandering—professor at Bennington College, who is equally brilliant, yet controlling behind closed doors. They take in a fictitious young couple: Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his pregnant wife Rose (Odessa Young). Fred will assist Stanley as his teaching aide and pregnant Rose agrees to help out around the house, cooking and cleaning, in exchange for room and board.
While the story of the young couple is completely made up, Decker seamlessly uses them as a storytelling device to weave Shirley’s health issues related to smoking and drinking, her agoraphobia, and her devilish psyche. As Fred becomes a disciple of Stanley—complete with philandering with his students—Rose slowly unravels, both repelled and attracted to Shirley in an unsettling way. Rose sees the genius in Shirley; in her independent thinking, yet she’s equally repulsed by Shirley’s lack of decorum and bipolar mood swings. At the same time, Shirley sees in Rose the character framework for her next book, dubbed Hangsaman, about a young collegiate coed who recently went missing in the area. As Rose and Fred’s relationship deteriorates, Rose becomes a devout follower of the church of Shirley, and her abuse and neediness. It’s an odd mix of Stockholm and Münchausen syndromes, with forbidden sexual energy and dependency issues.
A straight narrative would be haunting enough but Decker’s camera is intimate and direct. The score is orchestral and jarring. The performances are unwavering and dynamic. The effect is that the film feels very much like a New England gothic, a fitting tribute to the titular subject. If you didn’t know Shirley Jackson before, you’ll likely still be in the dark on her CV after viewing. But despite the fictional tale, viewers will see the real Shirley, complete with her psychoses and genius, intact and on display for all to bear witness.
Find it here on Hulu.
Highlights: Any scene with Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young alone together. Michael Stuhlbarg is incredibly charming and despicable.
MVP: Unquestionably Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson.
Director: Josephine Decker
Studio: Neon // Release date: June 5, 2020 (Hulu)