The unconventional short-term biopic has become its own kind of routine. Childhood-to-death arcs are still used often (and to surprising popularity) in movies like Bohemian Rhapsody, but plenty of biographical movies opt to cover a single pivotal stretch in their subject’s life, really digging into the genesis of a particular movement or work. Shirley digs so far that it leaves the work far behind, then keeps on digging.
Technically, the movie is about “The Lottery” and Haunting of Hill House author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) working on her 1951 novel Hangsaman. Her creative process involves staying at home whenever possible, pickling in her resentment and anxiety while engaged in an ongoing psychological duel with her professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). They’re joined by another, younger couple when Stanley mentors young Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), and coerces Fred’s wife Rose (Odessa Young) into serving as a temporary housekeeper. A planned stay of days turns into weeks, then months. During that time, Rose catches Shirley’s eye — which is easy to confuse with her ire — as the writer struggles with her newest manuscript, based on the unsolved disappearance of a local girl.
Josephine Decker’s film isn’t aiming to provide a thorough accounting of how Jackson wrote Hangsman, though, not least because the movie isn’t based in fact — it’s adapting a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Rose and Fred are made-up characters interacting with real-life figures, and Decker warps the sense of time further by moving the timeline up. Merrell’s book is set in the last year of Jackson’s life, in the mid-1960s; Shirley seems to be taking place in the early 1950s, though that still doesn’t account for the absence of Jackson and Hyman’s family. (At least one of their four children was born by this point.)
Or does it? Decker burrows so far into her characters’ subjective experiences that even straightforward scenes take on a hallucinatory quality. This is a far more straightforward film than her previous one, the trippy, harrowing Madeline’s Madeline, but it’s still a dreamy, subjective story. When Rose and Fred show up at Shirley and Stanley’s house during a party, for instance, figures whoosh around them like ghosts. Decker’s favored shallow focus keeps them out of full view, to spooky affect.
At first, the movie seems to tip its hand early. There’s barely a facade in front of Shirley and Stanley’s Edward Albee-level sniping, and Shirley seems near-monstrous to Rose within about 20 minutes of screentime. This isn’t a house that will gradually reveal itself as haunted. Instead, Decker keeps audience expectations off-balance. Stanley initially seems like the more gregarious, social creature, but his cruelty is more calculated and self-regarding, as he fumes about the mediocre competence of Fred’s work. (In fairness to Stanley, Fred is played by professional cipher Logan Lerman.) Shirley is unpleasant, sometimes borderline feral. (She looks almost content when sitting at a table alone, eating mashed potatoes straight from a serving dish.) Yet she’s remarkably upfront about her witchiness. She refuses to turn away in discomfort, and so does Decker.
Moss has come unglued in close-up before. Her starring roles in Her Smell and Queen of Earth, both for writer-director Alex Ross Perry, are character studies turned into horror shows, and she made those horrors more literal (and her trauma less self-inflicted) in the recent Invisible Man remake. For Shirley, she’s allowed to recede for passages that zero in on Rose, who eventually finds her sort-of boss’s disheveled, DGAF exterior alluring.
Rose, who arrives at the house in an early stage of pregnancy, was cornered into a housewife role while she was still very young. Meanwhile, her husband is pursuing professional excellence with Hyman as his dream mentor. (This is a sly, bitter joke, since Jackson is now vastly better-known and more influential than her husband.) Shirley provides Rose with a vision of unruly, unapologetic womanhood, caught up in her own work and never assuming the cheerful visage of a “little wifey,” as Stanley calls Rose. It becomes clear that Stanley, having insisted on an “open” relationship predicated on him sleeping with other women, is subcontracting out his wife’s domesticity, too. Again, the question comes up: Or is he? The film’s ending, particularly the presences and absences in its final few shots, keep the movie ambiguous and elusive.
For all their psychological acuity, Decker’s films don’t always feel lived-in. The theatricality of both Madeline’s Madeline and Shirley can have a distancing effect even as they push right up against the characters’ bodies and faces. Shirley’s writerly anguish, particularly as it relates to the disappeared girl, is blurred into abstraction. At one point, she complains about her true-crime inspiration: “There’s nothing fascinating about this girl except that she’s gone.” From what little information the movie provides, she may be right, but the line sounds like it’s been imported from a more traditional set of tortured-artist challenges. In the back half of the movie, time warps and distends, which only pushes the unseen missing girl further out of frame.
While Shirley doesn’t offer a lot of insight into the specifics of the writing process, it’s at least able to visualize and physicalize that process, and the toll it takes on an author who’s also dealing with expectations about how women should behave. It’s a shame that current conditions are limiting the movie to a VOD release: The modest scale would be more immersive on a big screen, and Decker’s focus tricks look smudgier on a small one. Her color scheme still pops, though: the rich greens, yellows, and blues of the interiors make Shirley’s house resemble, at times, an overgrown garden. It’s an apt metaphor for the movie, too, even before a character named Rose starts literally writhing around in the soil. Jackson’s life and talent aren’t orderly or simple; they grow wild, beautiful, and sometimes unnerving.
Shirley is now on Hulu and rentable for streaming or purchase at Amazon.