2020 | rated R | starring Elizabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stulhbarg, Logan Lerman | directed by Josephine Decker | 1 hr 47 mins |
Shirley is my kind of bio-pic. A defiant, stylistic, rebuttal of the usual bio-pic life story that slavishly charts a rise to fame and fall from grace with flattering portrayals of it’s subject’s genius, director Josephine Decker’s (the equally vibrant, but less compelling Madeline’s Madeline) take is a uniquely creative animal among these kinds of films. Shirley sizzles and hums with creative energy, taking what is essentially a 4-person chamber drama and finding ways to blow it out into stylish visual cinema. It’s a bio-pic and a character drama wrapped up and told to us like a gothic thriller about academia, madness and passive-aggressive relationships.
A young newly married couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), with plans for Fred to become a university professor, arrive at the near campus home of horror writer Shirley Jackson and her husband Stan (Michael Stuhlbarg) who invite them to stay for an indefinite period. During that time Shirley – a recluse, nearly crippled with writer’s block and paranoia – is inspired by the couple and the unsolved murder of a local college girl to write her next thriller and her ways both eccentric and misanthropic start to influence Rose. Shirley Jackson is played by Elizabeth Moss in a brilliant performance that would be career defining if it wasn’t the latest in a line of brilliant performances from Us to this year’s The Invisible Man. Moss manages to play all the eccentricities of Jackson with incredible understatement, not acting ticks, staring fiercely into the camera for long stretches.
Shirley follows the Darkest Hour inroad to exploring it’s subject. Instead of dragging through the full timeline of it’s subject’s life, it picks a singular defining period to explore. In this case it’s a Charlie Kaufman-esque story that weaves together an author’s work and their reality mixing fact and fiction to explore the essence of Jackson’s character. Her acid tongue, quick wit and self doubt. Her agoraphobia. When we first meet her, she has already published her first successful book, “The Lottery” hasn’t left the house for months. She sits in a circle surrounded by academic admirers and later we learn that she believes she is feared by the town. Her dark thoughts put into the world, the thing that made her a success, has frightened the locals and imprisoned her. Their problem is how she has made them think. Her husband who gave “notes” on her writing but didn’t contribute anything himself. When Shirley and Stanley aren’t bickering, they seem to relish in manipulating their guests (“the children”), at times propping them up, other times playing psychological games to tear them down.
The perspective oscillates between being a movie about how Rose is impacted by Shirley to how Shirley is possibly using Rose. We get gamesmanship between the two professors, one who is young nieve and unaware he is even playing, the other (Stuhlbarg is also excellent) with sly intentions for Rose himself. In the end all of it, might just be a game that Shirley and Stanley do to f**k with people. For their own amusement, one that keeps their relationship strong? Or one that keeps a tenuously held together marriage temporarily patched? There is a lot to unpack here. A lot to dig through and chew on.
Decker doesn’t stick exactly to the facts here, but uses Jackson’s stories to get to her spirit and in the process has made a far better movie because of it. We’ve had few releases in 2020 and so far Elizabeth Moss had headed up two of the best. Shirley fumes and simmers with passion and anger. It’s like if Darren Aronofsky directed Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf. But better.
Bonus: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
2019 | not rated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover | directed by Stacie Passon | 1 hr 30 mins |
In a straightforward adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel, one that’s story was woven into the bio-pic Shirley, two sisters, Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and Merricat (Taissa Farmiga), live in solitude and exile in their parent’s mansion with their wheelchair-bund uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). The rumor that they murdered their parents by poison hangs over the house. While Constance remains physically and emotionally paralyzed, Merricat ventures into the town with only witchcraft rituals to protect them, until their cousin Charles shows up to figure out what the heck is going on.
Glover is a lot of fun as usual, Farmiga is dives into the oddities of the character proving a real talent with the right material and Daddario fulfills her contract leading role just fine. It’s slick and well made, a decent double feature to illuminate some of the themes of Shirley, but nothing particularly exceptional.