A fictionalized take on the life of author Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Shirley is a deliciously toxic affair. We are introduced to Jackson through the eyes of Rose Nesmer. The wife of a young academic (Fred), the couple come to stay with Jackson and her partner (Stanley Hyman), who promptly begin to psychologically torment the young couple, who in turn inspire the author’s next literary work.
Eschewing the usual route taken by biopics in favour of something altogether more esoteric, Shirley is a fascinating watch. At times the film will remind you of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but it dials down the melodrama and amps up the caustic wit, with the film drawing uncomfortable laughs as we watch a battle of wills unfold between Jackson and her partner as they tear apart the young couple.
The film belongs to Elisabeth Moss who is having a tremendous run of things of late, be it her work in prestige TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, Blumhouse horror The Invisible Man or indie films like Her Smell. Moss has spent several years now being one of the most interesting performers on screen and she is staggeringly good in Shirley. It’s a complicated turn, with Moss skillfully layering in unpredictable shifts in the tone of her performance, oscillating between barbed one-liners and an unnerving stillness. It’s best not to predict the path this year’s awards season will take but if there is any justice then Moss will certainly be in the mix.
Michael Stuhlbarg takes all that made him such a charming presence in the likes of Call Me By Your Name and flips it on its head, presenting a bitter, wonderfully dislikeable figure. As the tormented party in our toxic quartet, Odessa Young gives a turn that is just about layered enough to offer something more than broken victim. It is Logan Lerman who is shortchanged by the script, his Fred really not a very interesting inclusion.
Writer Sarah Gubbins made her name with TV shows like Better Things and I Love Dick, and if anything Shirley feels like we are watching a serialized drama, with the film flourishing during its dialogue heavy scene. Director Josephine Decker broke out two years ago with Madeline’s Madeline and here shows why she is such an exciting director, with an admirable craft to the period elements. If there is a weakness to this film it is that outside of effectively showcasing a toxic relationship with all its quirks, there isn’t much more here. Shirley offers little new when it covers writer’s block or any other subject. And for those genuinely curious about Shirley Jackson you may be left dissatisfied. But for Moss’ masterful turn alone this is a film very much worth seeking out.