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Movie Review: 'Shirley'

Directed by: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
Available on YouTube, Amazon Prime
Rated R, 107 minutes

Most people become familiar with the writer Shirley Jackson through her 1948 story “The Lottery,” about a woman who gets stoned to death. “Shirley,” a dark psychological drama about a fictional episode in the author’s life, is fittingly tense and unsettling. It ends on the image of a couple happily dancing in their dining room, but it’s hard to watch this ending without disgust. It’s an ambiguous ending, too, not only because it’s unclear what literally happens, but also because we leave unsure whether we have just witnessed a triumph against great odds, an act of torture, an epiphany, a betrayal, or all of the above.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in a scene from “Shirley."  (Courtesy photo)

It begins inconspicuously enough: A young couple, Rose (Odessa Young, “Assassination Nation”) and Fred (Logan Lerman, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”), arrives in a small college town, where Fred has been hired as a professor. While they look for a house, they stay with a new colleague of Fred’s, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbar, “Call Me By Your Name”), whose wife is the infamous author. Shirley (Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale”), as Rose and Fred quickly realize, is in an intensely depressive and irritable state. In one scene, Stanley pleads with her to come to the dinner table; she obliges, only to drive everyone else out of the room with her tactlessness.

She isn’t idle, though, claiming to be working on a new novel based on the story of a local girl who went missing. Stanley, skeptical of her sanity, asks Rose to keep an eye on Shirley while the men are off teaching. Accustomed to being left alone at home, Shirley is at first annoyed that Rose now watches over her, but soon the two women, bonding over their shared feeling of invisibility around their more sociable husbands, form a tenuous friendship. Rose stays up late with Shirley, talking over drinks at the kitchen table; she ventures out to do research for Shirley’s novel; she helps her find a skirt for a party. For Shirley, it is the first friendship she’s had in a long time. Rose, meanwhile, learns from Shirley’s example how to exercise her agency over her own life, despite the power and position of her husband.

What Shirley doesn’t tell her, though, is that when she pictures the ill-fated heroine of her novel, she pictures Rose. Their friendship is similarly ill-fated, sullied with the sour note of these secret malevolent thoughts. Director Josephine Decker (“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely”) splices in jarring images—Rose alone in a forest, kids looking in eerie unison into the camera—that blur the line between reality and Shirley’s creative process. The effect is somewhere between “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “The Shining.” If Shirley has not gone mad by the end, the movie suggests, it is because she has sacrificed Rose in her stead, driving the young woman to the edge in order to observe her, in order to fill out the details of her novel.

Twisted and commanding portrayal

In Elisabeth Moss’ twisted and commanding portrayal, Shirley Jackson is an antihero reveling in destruction, whether others’ or her own. Moss captures simultaneously Shirley’s exhaustion—exhaustion with her husband, with her work, with life in general—and her impishness, the delight she takes in clever insults and brutal honesty. In one scene, Stanley questions the subject matter of her novel-in-progress, and Shirley, for the first time clear-eyed and passionate, defends the story of the missing girl as emblematic of the struggle of young women to be taken seriously. “So you think it might be that good,” Stanley condescends. Shirley kicks him out of the room, but a smile creeps onto her face, followed by quiet laughter. Moss’ sly expression illustrates an unsettling truth: that genius is, and perhaps must be, aware of itself. Shirley’s greatness is no accident, despite the chaos left in its wake.

The movie may paint Shirley as a tortured genius, but the movie itself rejects the myth of the tortured genius, suggesting that neither brilliance nor despair is inherent, but instead is learned. For Shirley and Rose, their despair is caused by the men they feel forced to treat with deference; their tragedy is that they can’t help but pay it forward. Unfolding with the subtle horror and calmly savage perception of Shirley Jackson’s stories, the movie transcends its faithful homage, and becomes something closer to elegy.

Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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