Writer Shirley Jackson is perhaps best known for her horror novel The Haunting of Hill House, widely regarded as one of the best and scariest ghost stories ever written. But Jackson’s personal life becomes a sort of horror story of its own in “Shirley,” a new drama based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and directed by Josephine Decker.
Set toward the end of Jackson’s life in the mid-1960s, “Shirley” follows fictional couple Fred and Rose Nemser, who move in with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Fred (Logan Lerman) is a graduate student at nearby Bennington College working alongside Stanley, and his work keeps him preoccupied, while pregnant Rose (Odessa Young) is left at the house to look after Shirley, whose anxiety has turned her into a recluse. Initially put off by Shirley’s direct and cutting manner, Rose quickly gets wrapped up in both Shirley and her work, as she embarks on writing a new novel despite Stanley’s discouragements.
The thriller Shirley’s working on involves a young woman who goes missing, and as Shirley herself (who practices witchcraft) experiences a series of dark dreams and visions involving Rose, it soon becomes apparent that Rose may have inadvertently become the subject of her host’s new novel. Fiction and reality blur further as the film progresses, making “Shirley” anything but a typical biopic. It follows the trends of several recent biopics by zeroing in on a small segment of its subject’s life (in this case, Shirley’s final years, after she has already published her most famous works) rather than the big picture. But the combination of fictional characters with real figures allows the movie to take on a different tone, closer to a psychological drama, even sometimes a thriller. Her name may not be in the title, but Rose is just as big a player in this movie as Shirley. In some ways she is the personification of the audience, allowing us to view Shirley not as her husband or friends or colleagues do, but as an outsider who is equally repelled by and drawn to her. The story also presents a compelling dynamic between the two couples. There is companionship present in each relationship, but it appears based on challenging each other, while the husband also possesses a domineering personality that he exerts over his wife. We see this most predominantly in the way Stanley treats Shirley. He is dismissive of her decision to write a novel rather than a short story, not believing she is up for the challenge in her current mental state, and is angry when she doesn’t share her writing with him. But Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins maintain focus on Shirley and Rose, setting up a fascinating if at times overly complex parallel portrait of women dipping into hysteria.
Young is wonderful as the rosy cheeked young woman whose world is rocked by her association with Shirley. Stuhlbarg is wonderful as he always is as a man who possesses a threatening demeanor under the easygoing manner he presents to others. Lerman, unfortunately, isn’t given as much to do, but it’s interesting to see how the way he interacts with Young’s character subtly changes over the course of the film. The standout, unsurprisingly, is Moss, who, in her second stellar role of the year so far and perhaps her career best performance to date, both physically and spiritually embodies Shirley with ease. Her Shirley is both predator and prey; her frequently spiteful nature makes her easy to loath, but her disdain for the society that surrounds her makes her at least a smidge more likeable. With the smallest change in facial expression, Moss walks this line with ease, proving once again that she is an acting force to be reckoned with.
“Shirley” is the sort of offbeat, creepy tribute to its subject that feels perfectly fitting. I’m not sure that it’s even appropriate to refer to it as a biopic, but regardless, it is the rare sort that dwells more on the person than on that person’s professional accomplishments. With Moss in front of the camera and Decker behind it, you really can’t go wrong.
“Shirley” is now available to watch on demand. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.