Shirley was directed by Josephine Decker from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, based off of the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. It stars Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) as Rose Nemser, a young woman married to a young doctoral student named Fred (Logan Lerman), who is called on by his professor, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), to assist with his classes at the local university, and to stay at the professor’s home for a few days, until he and Rose find a place. Given that their housekeepers had recently fallen out, however, Professor Hyman extends the invitation to both Fred and Rose to stay on a little longer, suggesting that Rose tend to the house chores which his wife, famed horror author Shirley Jackson, is unable to complete in her bouts of mental instability. Eventually, this request (and its subsequent acceptance) begins to manifest into Rose not only taking care of the house, but of Shirley herself, and as Rose tends to Shirley’s needs (both mental and emotional), the two begin to form a sort of strange kinship with each other. Bolstered by the knowledge of what it means to be a woman in a cruel and uncaring world, and their mutual struggle to find some measure of truth within madness, this kinship begins to inform Shirley’s next novel, which is about a young girl named Paula, who went missing after accepting a ride from a professor at her university; this novel would go on to become 1951’s Hangsaman. As Shirley writes the novel, evolving in her kinship with Rose, and both women seem increasingly distant from their husbands, we are left to wonder: was Shirley ever truly mad at all, or just in need of decent care? And really, what is madness but the freedom to act and speak honestly, without fear or respect of consequence? This film also stars Victoria Pedretti, Robert Wuhl, and Paul O’Brien.
There is an energy in Shirley that envelops as much as it terrifies; it is something mystifying and undefinable, but not so unknowable that the viewer would be unfamiliar with its particular touch of madness. Keeping things as spoiler-free as possible in this review is going to be difficult, not because the plot is difficult to describe without spoiling it, but because I’m so eager to dive right into the meat of it all that I find myself almost bound by fate to risk everything simply to be able to hash out my thoughts on paper. Truthfully, it’s been some time since a film with this much to discuss has compelled me, against my better instincts, to discuss it, no matter the consequences for someone else’s viewing experience. That is the kind of madness that Shirley inspires – unapologetic, unbound by expectations, and entirely at the mercy of one’s own desires, instincts, convictions. Decker has managed to capture in this film not just a near-perfect interpretation of the character of Shirley Jackson (we’ll get to that later), but as close to perfect a distillation of the essence of her work as anyone has managed on film, and that essence feeds into the way the film is styled, from the shot composition to the music to the edit to the story’s intimately absorbing and endlessly perplexing final moments. It’s a remarkable feat for any director to accomplish, and yet Decker makes it feel all the more impressive with her at the head.
The production values present in this film, as small and intimate as it is, are remarkable, particularly when it comes to how the film is shot. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen pulls off some familiar tricks with his camerawork, but manages to find new ways of communicating whatever the shot is attempting to tell the viewer. Throughout the film, as Shirley writes her novel, she experiences “visions” of her main character, as though she is watching the journey through a first-person point-of-view, but for the first half or so of the narrative, the character doesn’t quite have a face, even as the story is based on true events. As the narrative progresses, however, and Shirley gets further along in her novel, certain facets of the character (the face, the hands, the shoes) begin to come into focus, and we understand that as Shirley discovers the character in her writing, so do we discover her in the viewing. And the cinematography is not the only production value by which this film proves worthy of one’s time and attention.
There’s something to be said for a good musical score, and how it can elevate material from good to great, but the way the score in Shirley accentuates certain moments with feelings of delusion or instability within the story is something many films about madness, or at least perceived madness, fail to accomplish. Many films that fail to accomplish this do so by overusing the recorded score or by making their composers over-score important moments, occasionally so much that it feels as if the film is screaming “THIS IS IMPORTANT!!!” at you from the screen. Tamar-kali, however, manages to allow the score and narrative to coalesce into something wholly their own, at once separate from their origins yet born of their authors. Each time one hears the music come into the film, one cannot help but wonder if it is purposely playing a trick on the audience, duping us into believing Shirley is mad when it really is capturing the beauty of freeing oneself from expectations.
Playing that line, however, takes an expert, and no one is more up to task than Elisabeth Moss. In just two films in 2020, Moss has managed to deliver perfect or near-perfect performances playing characters on opposite ends of the spectrum of madness (or madness as it is perceived by others) that could put veteran Oscar favorites to shame. The Invisible Man made the case for her as a movie star, but Shirley, both in its direction and in Moss’ performance, makes the case for her as one of the greatest screen performers of her generation. All the performances in Shirley are fantastic (especially Michael Stuhlbarg and the vastly underrated Lerman), and I give major props to Odessa Young for matching Moss’s energy on screen almost step for step the whole way through, but there’s a reason Moss is top billing for this film, and she lays it out perfectly throughout the entire runtime. Not one false note or second of disbelief does she convey, and not one time in the film did I ever know if she was truly mad or not. The spectrum Moss plays in this movie is incredible, and if it were up to me, she would be in the running for Best Actress on this performance alone (though she’s certainly worthy for The Invisible Man as well).
Shirley is as accomplished a film as you’re likely to watch this year, and is worth every second of your time for both its commitment to madness, both in its production values and performances. Selfishly, though, I wish things had been a bit more spelled out for minds like mine, those that take a bit longer to adjust to the more ambiguous nature of the storytelling than perhaps I might like. Ambiguity can be a powerful tool in film; editor David Barker does a wonderful job of leaving the audience just on the precipice of answers without confirming a single suspicion. However, if overused, or used incorrectly, ambiguity can ultimately also be a detriment to the film’s clarity or narrative cohesion. Shirley’s ambiguity does not cost the film its power, but if the weight of it were slightly lessened over the course of the runtime, the film might have packed an even harder punch than what it ultimately leaves the viewer to sit with.
Far from being simply an absorbing tale of madness or the reversal of it, Shirley is the essence of Shirley Jackson and her work brought into the filmmaking stratosphere, and left there to settle with an audience that may or may not be ready for it. Josephine Decker, Elisabeth Moss, and everyone involved in the making of this film should be endlessly proud of what they’ve created here, and while it does have a little more ambiguity than perhaps I may have liked, this is easily one of the most full realized and engaging films of the year thus far, with an ending I will be pouring over for days on end, and one of the best performances of 2020, full stop. Definitely seek this one out.
I’m giving “Shirley” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.