Synopsis – A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.
My Take – Sure in comparison to her contemporaries author Shirley Jackson and her works may not be considered as household in the vast media, however with the massive success of the Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, a welcome resurgence of interest has begun in her widely diverse novels, short stories and articles, especially with wider knowledge that renowned authors like Stephen King, Sarah Waters and Neil Gaiman have been citing her as an influence on their celebrated work.
While we have already received a motley film adaption of her literary classic, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, last year, and a feature adaption of her 1948 short story, The Lottery, on the horizon, here comes a new film which has Martin Scorsese as an executive producer as is directed by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) who instead of adapting one of her works, focuses on the writer itself in a time when she was depressed, almost manic and mostly grazed by the lack of respect given to a creative woman in the 1950s.
However, this one is far from a conventional biography as it adapts the 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and purposely avoids the standard trappings of the film genre, in favor of a psychological horror story that that freely mixes fact and fiction in the author’s life.
Led by an unsurprisingly superb Elisabeth Moss as Jackson herself, the film is without a doubt an uncomfortable watch and a challenging process, and isn’t likely to suit everyone’s taste, given how fundamentally interior it is in nature and its deliberately ambiguous ending, yet thanks to the performances and fascinating interactions, I personally found this one to be a fitting homage and remained enthralled for 107 minutes.
The story follows Rose (Odessa Young), a young pregnant woman who along with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman), after eloping for marriage, finds herself arriving at the house of Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor and literary critic, as boarders. While Fred works hand-in-hand with Stanley at his university professorship hoping that he would bless his thesis in order for Bennington College to hire him for a permanent position, meanwhile, Rose is coerced into serving as a temporary housekeeper, as Stanley worries about Shirley’s mental stability, who is often-unhinged at home, equally beset by bouts of intense creativeness and depression.
Though Shirley is initially against the young couple staying with them, with Rose especially enduring some harshness from her, but soon the two ladies end up with an awkward bond which has Rose serving as a quasi-muse for Shirley’s new novel, which is based on the unsolved disappearance of a local girl.
While Jackson did suffer from anxiety issues, writer’s block, and agoraphobia, and was known from being an angry alcoholic, and a self-proclaimed witch, but most of what transpires here is mostly fiction, albeit with nuggets of the author’s real life mixed in. After all this is not your run-of-the mill film biography, but instead an innovative glance into the mind of a gifted and disturbed woman.
Here, Josephine Decker solidly directs this psycho-drama and stresses the sense of dread with her shrewd pacing that continually builds on the interplay of the characters’ words, actions and multiple dynamics. For example, Shirley and Stanley have their psychological gamesmanship, while Shirley and Rose are going down an entirely different twisted path. And then there is odd relationship between pregnant Rose and husband Fred, and again between Fred and Stanley. And we haven’t even gotten to what the outside world thinks of Shirley, and how Stanley’s disclosed infidelities keep a fire burning inside Shirley, despite her humiliation.
Here, there is a lot to take in from the domestic life of the era where creative women strained to start and maintaining a career, especially their inner-demons. One of the key elements that sticks out is how each character is striving desperately to establish their own identity. But the hallmark of the film is how it constructs its titular character. For most of the film, Jackson is portrayed as a nasty, snarky woman without a nice word to say to anyone. But as certain events begin to unravel we learn more about her existence and come to sympathize with her plight.
This is of course contrasted with Rose’s characterization, who starts off as a perfect wife but ends up looking a lot more like Shirley than ever anticipated. Though the film doesn’t offer a lot of insight into the specifics of her writing process, it is at least able to visualize that process, and the toll it takes on the author.
In the technical department, composer Tamar-kali adds a near-horror element to the frightening interactions, with most of the film taking place in the creaky, book-filled house, cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen expertly captures the whole intensity.
Unfortunately, the film has some failings too. Like the supposed themes of the film are quite scattershot throughout. The thread connecting reality to Jackson’s new novel actually works against the proceedings by creating confusion as to what exactly is transpiring. While I understood the goal of that choice, it simply didn’t work all that well. As such, it takes far too long to really figure out what exactly it is all about.
Sure, the film took on some creative liberties to mix things up, however, some facts such as her four children never appear or exist in this film, her lesbian tendencies of which there is no real substantial evidence comes and go, her sadistic bouts of madness are borderline crazy. Also an interesting side-story about a missing girl mystery is introduced and successfully incorporated into the narrative, only to be discarded later in the film.
Performance wise, Elisabeth Moss, who has been made to look uncannily similar to Jackson, has always excelled at playing characters with their nerve endings exposed. Here too she displays an incredible range of emotions and expressions that create a creepy vibe throughout, proving why she is considered as one of the best actors to grace the screen.
Odessa Young is also terrific, while Michael Stuhlbarg continues his streak of fantastic performances. However, Logan Lerman is bit short-changed here. Though his performance is good, he is not given anything interesting to do with this character. On the whole, ‘Shirley’ is a solid yet slow-building psychological drama uplifted by its unique tone and performances.
Directed – Josephine Decker
Rated – R
Run Time – 107 minutes