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The work of author Shirley Jackson ranges from the merely chilling to the absolutely terrifying. Famous for her short story “The Lottery,” a popular reading assignment for middle schoolers, Jackson expertly wrote about both supernatural horror and the terror of being a woman in a male-dominated society. Shirley, a profoundly subversive work from director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), has its eye on both. It paints a dizzying portrait of Jackson, using every note in the writer’s symphony of tones to turn the biopic genre, currently suffering from an oppressive male sameness with the likes of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, on its head.
The film starts not with Jackson, but with Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), a young newlywed couple that has come to stay with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) for a few days. Fred has been selected out of many to be a teaching assistant for the charismatic Stanley, which leaves Rose and Shirley to tiptoe around each other in a large campus home during the day. At night, the foursome dine together, where the newlyweds endure the acerbic barbs of the sharp older couple, who seem to have modeled their marital rapport after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
With Fred and Stanley working full days—and often late nights—Shirley sets her sights on Rose. She is one of Jackson’s doomed heroines, a sharp young woman who got pregnant and dropped out of school to marry the baby’s father. Shirley sees her as a new plaything. She circles Rose like a writer trying to figure out a character: sympathizing, mocking, manipulating, drawing her close, and eventually falling into something like love with her. The film doesn’t ever define their relationship, instead using it as a prism to examine Jackson and her ideas of womanhood from a multitude of angles.
It’s a relationship, and a film, that will surely reveal more of itself upon repeat viewings. Decker, working from a script by Sarah Gubbins that’s based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, rejects the idea that an artist, or at least this one, can be understood by looking at them directly. The film persistently opens up narrative possibilities—romantic, sexual, and dramatic—suggested by the various pairings of its tense foursome, only to quietly back away from them, step sideways, and examine the complex dynamic from another angle. It’s as if Decker took one of Jackson’s short stories, ripped the pages to shreds, and then glued it back together as an abstract sculpture. You can’t always read the words, but you can feel the meaning.
If you seek clarity in your art, Shirley may seem willfully abstruse, but every time it seems poised to dissolve into molecules, the astounding performances ground the film in human emotion. As Stanley, Stuhlbarg uses his avuncular warmth to pry open his victims before unleashing his poison. It’s a towering portrayal of male insecurity posing as intellectualism. Still, it’s the women of Shirley who shine the most. Young is successful in serving as an audience avatar while playing a woman who falls under a spell that defies description. As the one who casts the spell, Moss is miraculous, excavating each mood, from angry to vengeful to depressed to horny, as if it were being discovered for the first time. Empowering and unnerving, she holds the film in her hands, and writes a dazzling narrative into existence.
Shirley is available to stream Friday on Hulu.