Shirley is a horror film, though in a subcategory not often recognized within the genre’s conventions—it is about the horrors of dysfunctional social settings. It’s difficult to not draw comparisons between Shirley and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as both films focus on two married couples—one young and naive, the other older and jaded—as they tear each other apart (mostly metaphorically, sometimes literally) while in close quarters. Where the latter film compresses all of its anguish into one explosive and revelatory evening, Shirley drags out the trauma of these relationships over the course of many months.
The film’s title refers to renowned horror author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), who is writing on her latest disturbing literary work with the encouragement of her literary critic husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stulbarg), a philandering and overbearing professor. When the pair take in a younger newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), as their new houseguests/servants, the relational tension grows within the house to an unbearable breaking point. In particular, Shirley and Rose develop a quasi-vampiric relationship, with the manipulative and macabre author using Rose as both a muse and a minion.
Elisabeth Moss’s performance is disturbingly good as the eponymous horror author. Moss portrays Jackson as a semi-unhinged genius artist who does not give a f*ck about anyone or anything besides The Work. Frumpy and frazzled, Shirley never leaves the house and suffers from manic depressive spells. When she does leave, it never ends well; a dinner party with friends goes horribly awry, and a scene in the nearby woods with Rose and some poisonous mushrooms is downright Phantom Thread-ish. At times, she orders Rose around like a maid or a slave; in other moments, they share the intimacy of friends, even lovers. Through the ostensibly callous exterior, Moss imbues Jackson with a sense of vulnerability and self-awareness: she knows and cares that she has trouble relating to others, yet she doesn’t seem able (or willing) to change, perhaps for the sake of her literary art. Moss’s post-Mad Men film roles have been bold and diverse; she’s portrayed Becky Something in Her Smell, Anne in The Square, and Cecilia in this year’s The Invisible Man each with the same underlying sense of verve, yet in very dissimilar films and styles. Shirley is no exception, cementing Moss as one of the most remarkable and interesting actors working today in television and film. Stuhlbarg is nearly her equal here (both diegetically and as a performer), portraying Stanley as an insufferable academic cad and a flawed-but-caring spouse. Stanley and Shirley may not want each other (or maybe they do?), but they seem to need each other. Their marital relationship is, in a word, complicated.
Yet despite these ingredients for a truly unhinged tale, Shirley seems hampered or muted by its source material. Where Josephine Decker’s previous film, Madeline’s Madeline, was a creative tour de force which pushed cinematic boundaries (it was #6 in my Top 25 of 2018), Shirley feels restrained by Sarah Gubbins’ script, which is an adaptation of a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, which is itself a quasi-biographical account about Jackson’s life and persona. By the time these layers of adaptation make it to the cinematic screen, some of the potential force feels muddled or frustrated. The extensive use of soft focus and imagined sequences do give Shirley a dreamy tone. But its themes about artistic struggle and stifling gender norms cannot break free from biopic genre conventions. The result is unnerving but not horrifying, an judgment which is perhaps damning with faint praise. Still, Shirley is powerfully perturbing, anchored by the superb lead performances from Moss and Stuhlbarg. If you’re looking for a horror biopic, this may not quite fit the bill; but if you’re looking for emotional distress and anxiety, you’re invited to stay over for dinner.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8430598/