'Shirley' Review: Haunting Domesticity

Josephine Decker continues her ascent following the remarkable Madeline’s Madeline with this sinister film based on the literary horror icon Shirley Jackson. Decker’s film arrives along with a wave of reinvigorated interest in Jackson whose ferocious writing had influenced a generation of authors from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. Jacksons piercing feminist approach to the nightmares lurking just beneath the placid American veneer feel more prescient and valuable than ever. Gratefully Shirley, which is based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrel rather than any work of Jackson’s herself, dispenses with any notions of being a biopic and cleverly channels the spirit of Jacksons writing and evokes the type of biting horror for which she was known.

Decker’s breathless camerawork and intimate style (camera locked in extreme close-ups paired with a sharp sound design) pull you into the hallucinogenic nightmare. The intensity of this filming style, pressed close to faces, almost feeling their breath, creates a claustrophobic intimacy that doesn’t loosen its grip until the very end. There is a swelling anxiety in this discomfort that mimics a fugue state, and runs parallel to the type of nightmares that Jackson loved to construct. Elisabeth Moss, predictably fantastic playing her, and melds the wildness of Her Smell’s Becky Something with Shirley Jacksons’ caustic wit. She is at once dismissive yet alluring, frail yet infinitely powerful, prisoner in her own house or the actual captor. In maintain this delicate balance, Moss once again proves that she is one of the most electric actors of our time, and freezes you in place whenever she’s on screen.

Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker 2020)

Any actor who can go toe to toe with Moss at this intensity is worthy of considerable attention and Michael Stulhbarg rises to the occasion playing Jackson’s smarmy professor-husband Stanley Edgar Hyman with delicious glee. Hyman may come off as the reasonable one in the relationship, but his playful demeanor hides something so much darker and when it starts to slip things really heat up. Stulhbarg who is best known for starring in A Serious Man has been appearing in Oscar contenders with some consistency lately: The Post, Shape Of Water, and Call Me By Your Name all have notable side roles, but his vivacious turn here is the reminder that he needs to be taken seriously and when given more to work with, he can play with the best of them.

The posters may center Moss but Odessa Young, playing Rose Nesmer, the wife of a young graduate student working under Hyman gives a surprisingly adept performance given the caliber of this cast. It is through her eyes that we experience Jackson’s world. The film opens with Rose reading The Lottery in the New Yorker (a story so vicious that it prompted a flood of complaints and cancellations) and afterwards zeroes in on the relationship Rose builds with Jackson while both husbands are away. A reflection of Jackson’s fiction, what transpires is a disquieting meditation on the roles women play and the lurking horrors behind suburban ideals.

The only real weak point to be found is a somewhat disjointed narrative that toys with Jackson’s writing blending fiction and reality in intriguing but sometimes distracting ways. This was used to fantastic effect to close off Madeline’s Madeline, but a lot of the trickery here feels excessive and unnecessary hitting a few speed-bumps towards the film’s culmination. If you can push past some of these minor stumbles there is more than enough richness in visuals and sheer performance here to make this a must-see. Decker’s film-making is unsettling, vibrant, and invigorating and a perfect tribute to Shirley Jackson’s idiosyncratic and seminal approach to horror.

Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker 2020)

The Ten Best Films of 2020​

With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.