James Jay Edwards reviews Shirley, starring Elisabeth Moss and directed by Josephine Decker, based on the life of writer Shirley Jackson.
Whether it’s through reading her short story “The Lottery” in junior high or picking up on her influential The Haunting of Hill House in high school, everyone seems to have read something by the author Shirley Jackson. And the woman herself was just as enigmatic and eccentric as her stories. That Shirley Jackson is what is explored in the simply titled Shirley.
Shirley stars Elisabeth Moss (The Invisible Man, Us) as Jackson, who, along with her husband Stanley Hyman (The Shape of Water’s Michael Stuhlbarg), spends most of her days and nights drinking and smoking. When a younger couple, Rose and Fred (Assassination Nation’s Odessa Young and Logan Lerman from the Percy Jackson movies, respectively), drops in to stay with the older couple for a while, Shirley and Stanley use their vivid imaginations to find creative ways to toy with their guests.
(Shirley, theatrical release poster, Neon)
The script for Shirley is based upon the book Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, but both director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick) did plenty of homework on Jackson themselves. The movie flirts with psychological horror at times, but never really crosses the line. It is a bit like a Shirley Jackson story itself—ever evolving, not letting the viewer/reader in on all of its secrets until it’s too late for them to turn back. Terrifying in its own way, and not a vampire or a zombie in sight.
Elisabeth Moss is a treasure. The actress elevates any movie she’s in, making bad movies watchable (The Kitchen) and good movies great (Her Smell). And this trend continues with Shirley. The film itself is good, but Moss’ performance pushes it over the top. Shirley takes place after “The Lottery” but before The Haunting of Hill House, so the character of Shirley is shown simultaneously as both a legendary writer and a washed-up has-been. And Moss captures both sides of the coin—the respected author and the eccentric recluse—perfectly. Moss also manages to toss in just enough humanity to force the audience to root for the testy old curmudgeon. Shirley is crazy, but there are hints that she may be a victim of her husband’s philandering, and Moss helps the character eventually provide a surprising amount of empathy towards Rose, seeing her younger charge possible going down some of the same pathways.
As a whole, the movie is a slow burner. There are long stretches where seemingly nothing is happening, but it’s all a setup for some later shifty shenanigans. As mentioned earlier, the hero-villain dynamic in Shirley is constantly morphing, particularly when it comes to the titular character. Shirley is mean and conniving one minute, smooth and sensitive the next, and wondering which Shirley will show up in each scene is the most fun aspect of the movie. Not that Shirley is a fun movie—it’s actually a fairly upsetting watch—but it’s never boring, no matter how slow the action gets. And it does keep its audience guessing throughout its entire runtime, whether it’s accomplished through changing character motivations or shifting cinematic tonality.
Shirley is one of those catch-all movies that will have initial appeal to a lot of different groups. Horror fans, biopic aficionados, and quirky drama buffs will all find it interesting, yet it will most likely fall off most people’s radars quickly. It’s a well-made movie, but the only segment of the moviegoing population that will remember it this time next year will be Elisabeth Moss fans. And that’s only if the always-working Moss doesn’t put out too many other movies between now and then.