Directed by Josephine Decker
Shirley is not the film I thought it would be. That is to say, I went into this movie with the assumption that it would be a biographical picture about author Shirley Jackson, who wrote a fair amount of short stories and novels, among them such famous works as The Lottery, We Have Always Lived In The Castle and, the only book I’ve personally read by her but, it’s one of my favourite horror novels, The Haunting Of Hill House. That one was also the basis for the 1963 movie The Haunting, which is the best horror movie ever made as far as I’m concerned (and reviewed by me here)... as well as being remade under the same name (couldn’t bear to even look at it but may visit it someday for the Jerry Goldsmith score) and was also turned into a weird kind of ‘inspired by’ TV show, The Haunting Of Hill House, which was fun but... well, the less said about that one the better (but if you do want to hear me say it, you can read my review here).
True, Elisabeth Moss most certainly does play Shirley Jackson here but, it turns out, this is not a ‘full on’ biopic but a slice out of her life over the course of around a year (possibly just a little longer) and, furthermore, a fictional slice at that. It’s actually based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and it looks at a period in Jackson’s life when a young, fictional couple are ‘put up’ at her house in exchange for services while the husband works with Shirley’s unfaithful college lecturer husband at the local college and as she struggles to write her second novel.
So this is an exploration of an... well, I’d like to say ‘incident’ but, truly, nothing much happens and the drama of the thing comes from the cynical, paranoid and acerbic Shirley’s relationship with the young, pregnant wife Rose Nemser... and also the writer’s growing obsession with a young woman who went missing from campus at the time (an unsolved mystery). It’s been said, though, that even this incident giving inspiration into the construction of the novel, especially as depicted here, is somewhat less easy to prove or verify so, as I said, a completely fictional account.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing of Shirley Jackson in this, of course. I’ve not seen Elisabeth Moss in much and, almost all of the films I’ve seen her in other than the recent iteration of The Invisible Man (reviewed by me here) were from the early to mid nineties, it turns out... completely belying my assumption, going by her on-screen looks, that she was only in her early twenties. However, I do know she’s a very good actress and I can only assume that she’s thoroughly researched the personae of Jackson to prepare for the role (as much as one is able to), especially since she’s one of the producers on this. So I trust her that there’s a lot of the writer in this. And, as you would expect from Moss, she puts in a towering performance which is, in some ways, more like a silent actress because, although she does have vast stretches of dialogue here, a lot of the time her character and the power of her personality comes through looks and gestures... which is always welcome in the modern cinematic landscape (if I’m still allowed to use that term during these times of Covid), where often the words rule the visuals too much.
That being said, Odessa Young, who plays both Rose Nemser and, in odd dream-like flashbacks, the missing woman, is absolutely the person you can’t help but look at here. The film is told through her eyes and, as good as Moss is in this (and she is amazingly good), Young gives an outstanding performance which I won’t easily forget. In fact, the film is more about her fragile spirit transforming itself into someone who will no longer play the little ‘wifey’ to her husband played by Logan Lerman... just as Shirley doesn’t to her own husband, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. She does this well and, of the two lead female roles, this is easily the better part.
Josephine Decker’s direction is pretty damn great too, with patches of dreamlike imagery and possible prophecy inserting themselves into the narrative via Jackson’s ‘mental set backs’ in subtle ways, a little like a slower, more elegant use of the way director Nicholas Roeg would suddenly dislocate the viewer from the time frame of the movie and use the contrasting imagery to attempt to give a little insight and possible judgement into the character’s future destinations. There’s some nice stuff here and, for a film which disappointed me in terms of expectations but thoroughly entertained me while doing so, I was impressed with the whole package and was surprised, given the insubstantial content of the piece, that she does genuinely lead the audience into an illusion of a somewhat abstract climax to the movie... which in a way is more a Hollywood expectation rather than a necessary film-maker’s agenda.
Less subtle, perhaps, is the suggested ‘undertone’ of bisexual romance between the two women, perhaps as a nod to the character of Theo in The Haunting Of Hill House or, possibly not but, alas, that’s my only point of reference here. This is an interesting dimension to the film because, just as it threatens to go over the top into a full on, uncompromising sexual relationship, the director chooses to just step back and leave the topic, letting it fizzle away, possibly to marinate in the background while the film plays out.
I was very impressed, though, by Tamar-kali’s somewhat skittish score, which weaves in and out in playful and simplistic ways which sometimes approach atonalism but never quite get there. Instead it kind of plays in the edges and gives us a somewhat nervous, questioning stimuli while the visuals are playing. Not something which one could easily categorise but it does a good job for the film. Alas, it’s only available commercially as a compromised, electronic download of the music rather than an actual score on a proper CD, at time of writing, so it doesn’t look like I’ll get to hear this as a stand alone listen anytime soon. However, I’d like to hear more of this composer’s work in films in the future.
And that’s my look at Shirley. I’d probably recommend it to most cineastes because the way in which the film is put together far outweighs anything lacking in the area of story or content. I would say that, if you don’t go in expecting anything in the horror genre and, similarly, not assuming this is going to be some biopic as opposed to a piece of fiction utilising a real life person as one of the main characters, then you will probably get something out of this movie. I’m not sure it’s a film I could watch a second time but it certainly kept me entertained enough that it didn’t drag at all. Give this one a go.