Updated: Jul 30, 2020
In Shirley, Josephine Decker swirls fact and fiction, reality and imagination, clarity and madness in a purposefully dizzying tribute to writer Shirley Jackson that exposes horror in the mundane.
The film takes the broad circumstances of Jackson’s life and work and focuses them within an imagined scenario: while Shirley (Elizabeth Moss), on the heels of the release of her famously provocative short story, “The Lottery,” works on her novel Hangsaman, her husband, professor and literary critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites the (fictitious) young PhD student Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) to stay with them while they look for a house. While Fred spends more and more time away from Rose at the university and elsewhere, Rose becomes increasingly involved with Shirley. Despite Shirley’s harsh, often intentionally vicious behavior, Rose is fascinated by and intoxicated with her, enchanted by “The Lottery” before they even meet and then drawn in by her haunted genius.
At one point, while Stanley and Shirley sit at the dinner table together, he compares them to Macbeth, and this is indeed how the couple's relationship seems sometimes: dreadfully toxic, plagued, full of resentment. Alternately, they seem to rejoice in the turmoil they can stir up as a team, gleeful at the prospect of wreaking havoc on the young couple. Unlike Macbeth, however, Stanley Hyman is far from passive. He is insidiously controlling of the women around him, immediately requesting that Rose do their cooking and cleaning when she moves in- a full time job given Shirley’s mental state and nonchalance regarding mess. With Rose around the house, he comes onto her despite her clear discomfort: a slow, slimy hug from behind or a forced kiss while her husband is one room away. Even with his own wife, he seems just as much threatened by her talent as he is in awe of it. He repeatedly puts Shirley down, devaluing her ability while becoming visibly agitated at the prospect of Shirley writing things without showing him, an intense desire to act as creative gatekeeper. All the while, of course, he sleeps with his young students, an element true to the real couple's open marriage. Stuhlbarg plays this toxicity under a veneer of sing-songy vocality, breezy, cheerful quirk, and overconfident intellectualism. He feels like both a real individual as well as the embodiment of so many accomplished male intellects that young women have the misfortune of meeting: narcissistic, charming, preying on a combination of ability and insecurity.
Moss’s Shirley, however, is hardly a demure victim. She is venomous at times, taking pleasure in toying with Rose despite their attraction to each other, but often she is paralyzed with fear, doubtful of her own abilities and terrified of the world around her. Shirley manages to be both impossibly tuned into reality as well as detached from it. She can tell Rose is pregnant from a single glance, spot every woman that her husband is or wants to be sleeping with, and most importantly, she can see a broader harshness of the world with painfully sharp clarity. Simultaneously, she dips into daydreams and dark fantasy, her mind sometimes running away from her and manifesting through her agoraphobia and other struggles. Moss plays these enigmatic qualities beautifully, managing to make you both terrified of her and terrified for her.
The gothic nature of Jackson’s writing is visually rendered through the cinematography (Sturla Brandth Grøvlen), rife with unsettling close-ups of piercing eyes, flashes between disorienting angles, and unassuming imagery turned disturbing. Scenes transition via sweeping shots of creaking walls, faces blur in and out, and a sense of place gets lost in overhead views of the maze-like forests of Vermont. The images dance under the spell of Tamar-kali’s score, the instrumentation a cacophonous mixture of deep, rumbling piano and plinky aharmonious strings amidst echoey breaths and ghostlike vocalizations. Decker puts forth Shirley not as a straightforward biopic, but instead as a stylized work with the mystery, horror, and gothic lens of Jackson’s writing. Anchored by pieces of Jackson’s narration of Hangsaman throughout, it is often unclear whether art is imitating life or vice versa: what is actually happening and what is a mere visualization of the novel? Do the young couple, especially Rose, act as muses for Hangsaman, or do they happen to mirror the concepts and events that Shirley writes about?
Mirrors are abound in Shirley, both literally and metaphorically, often warping along the way. Rose, in the first scene of the film, stands in between two mirrors in the back of a train, the trees and sunlight filtering through the windows an absinthe green, and looks at the reflection of her moving hand in confusion, as though she can’t really believe it’s her. Similarly, Rose’s character acts as a mirror and symbol within the film. Odessa plays her beautifully as an individual in her own right, but Rose also mirrors the main character in Hangsaman as well as women who read Jackson’s work and saw their own strangeness, fear, and anger in it. But Rose most saliently embodies the many women who found themselves disillusioned with womanhood, domesticity and the "woman’s place,” those with wasted academic and personal potential. Initially a happy woman on the outside, it is suggested that Rose does not become unhinged because of the presence of Shirley’s witchlike qualities but because of how Shirley and her work awaken her to the normalized madness of her own life, trapped, unfulfilled, and misunderstood.
It is this disillusionment with womanhood and specifically the brand of midcentury womanhood that the characters take part in that's the real underlying theme of the film. Shirley, and especially Rose, are filled with the seething rage simmering beneath the surface that comes with being a woman, the invalidated, suppressed anger brought on by living in a patriarchal, misogynistic society. There are no ghosts or ghouls in Shirley; instead the film takes little pieces of “normal” conventional life and poses them as the threat. This is suggested to be the source of Shirley’s and Rose’s madness. Rose casually tosses raw eggs onto the ground, Shirley deliberately spills wine on someone else’s couch: these moments, captured with an unsettling gothic flare, are their small rebellions against daily life. At the end of the film, when Fred and Rose move out of the house, Fred tells her that they can go back to normal. “I’m not going back to that," she hisses, "Little wifey. Little Rosie. That was madness.” And you understand.