Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson
Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Edgar Hyman
Logan Lerman as Fred Nemser
Odessa Young as Rose Nemser
Steve Vinovich as Henry
Directed by Josephine Decker
Long before Stephen King terrified readers with murderous clowns and Neil Gaiman was taking viewers into fantastical yet haunting worlds, Shirley Jackson was one of the most insightful and celebrated horror authors, but also one of the most complex and reclusive in history, leaving many to ponder details about her life. While Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel Shirley may take a bit of a fictional path to giving readers an insight on this cultural icon, it still offered an interesting look at its titular focus and Josephine Decker’s adaptation brings this material to life in a finely-acted and mostly compelling affair.
Renowned horror writer Shirley Jackson is on the precipice of writing her masterpiece when the arrival of newlyweds upends her meticulous routine and heightens tensions in her already tempestuous relationship with her philandering husband. The middle-aged couple, prone to ruthless barbs and copious afternoon cocktails, begins to toy mercilessly with the naïve young couple at their door.
Penned by Sarah Gubbins, best known as co-creator of I Love Dick and writing four episodes of FX’s Better Things, the script finds itself drawing audiences in right away with its introduction of its characters, initially painting them with very broad strokes that paves the way for their character development and cat-and-mouse nature with one another. As we’re introduced to the titular author and the young Rose, we’re initially presented with two women who have aspirations, talents and power that could carry them through life in another time, but with its late ’50s to early ’60s-era setting, we instead see as they are both held back by the men in their lives.
But this relationship becomes more complex and captivating as we see Shirley and husband Stanley are secretly figuring out ways to devolve not only the marriage between Rose and Fred, but also Rose’s mental state, while still seeing scenes of Shirley and Rose together in which the author appears to genuinely care about someone she sees a lot of herself in and wants to see escape this destructive cycle. This tug-of-war of mental standings only proves further and further compelling as we’re left to truly decide for ourselves who we should empathize with and who we shouldn’t put our trust in, with some of its late-in-the-game revelations proving fascinating and mostly unique.
In addition to its intriguing and compelling script, the film is carried by the phenomenal performances from its cast, namely Moss, Stuhlbarg and Young in their triangle of emotional manipulation. Moss has never shied away from roles of women in some kind of emotional struggle and yet this feels like a year of her most fascinating performances yet between Shirley and The Invisible Man, even if one character was easier to root for than the other. Whether it be a truly detestable human or a kind-hearted soul, Stuhlbarg always seems to have a way of tapping into the heart of his characters and his role of Stanley is no different, as he brilliantly brings to life the emotionally abusive and controlling man in Shirley’s life. While Young has delivered solid performances in a number of notable projects, this proves to be a career-best turn for her, as she brilliantly captures every frustrating hurdle, emotional barb and devastating life event with power and grace.
The captivating writing and powerful performances are all brought to life thanks to the stylish direction from Decker, well-known for her acclaimed drama Madeline’s Madeline. Adding a grimy veneer to its look to capture the warm, summer Vermont setting, Decker brings the camera in close to her stars, giving viewers an intimate look at the dozens of emotions on each stars’ face in any one scene, keeping audiences compelled with each of their journeys.
Be it the film’s disjointed nature or occasionally unsure footing in balancing fact and fiction, Shirley does occasionally stumble with its storytelling, but thanks to a trio of stellar performances, fascinating cat-and-mouse emotional games and strong direction from Decker, it proves to be a compelling and mostly unique exploration of a horror icon.