In her first feature since 2018’s acclaimed Madeline’s Madeline, director Josephine Decker returns with another tense portrait of two strong, female personalities clashing and complementing one another. And it begins with a train-ride sex scene, in which a young woman becomes so titillated by Shirley Jackson’s macabre short story ‘The Lottery’ that she cannot help but be pleasured by her husband.
A fictionalised biography of the iconic horror author Shirley Jackson, adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, the film follows young couple Fred and Rose Nesmer (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young). The pair come to stay with the titular Shirley (Elisabeth Moss at, perhaps, her most unhinged) and her husband, professor Stanley Edgar Nyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and soon become embroiled in their hosts’ tumultuous relationship, whilst Rose finds herself caught in Shirley’s chaos in more ways than one.
Wide-eyed and eager, Fred and Rose take up a room with Shirley and Stanley, as Fred is to be Stanley’s new assistant at the college where he teaches in Vermont. Unwelcoming and agoraphobic, Shirley is instantly repelled by sweet Rose, a doting wife and soon-to-be mother to soft-spoken Fred. Shirley spits insults like venom and indulges in frequent violent outbursts, constantly on the offensive and ready to attack. But when she’s not, she’s holed up in her bedroom, sleeping until the late afternoon and refusing to leave her bed. The other people in town share not just praise but whispers about old Shirley, the crazy writer who might be a witch, and as she seems to embrace her status as somewhat of a social pariah, she can’t help but initially resent Rose for being the opposite.
At the same time, a missing local girl named Paula has piqued Shirley’s interest in her pursuit of her upcoming novel, as her strangely strengthening relationship with Rose feeds into the creative process as well. The two women find themselves in a kind of perverse symbiosis, searching for a twisted solace in one another from their husbands who don’t really want to understand them. Stanley and Fred are encouraging but reckless; far less scrutinised than their female counterparts, and allowed leeway to behave as they please, while only offering the amount of support that exists within the parameters they expect of their wives. Stanley is not that much less erratic than his wife, but he is far more respected. Rose did not go to college and instead took the path of housewife and mother most expected of women, but is still looked down on. For women, it’s hard to win no matter what role you take on.
So, the two women become enamoured with one another instead of with their men, as Shirley coaxes out Rose’s hidden darkness hidden under the prim and proper young wife. Their mutual suffering and understanding feeds into a hidden romance of grazed hands and knowing looks and legs touching underneath a dinner table. And tensions begin to mount with Shirley’s novel on the horizon, and the increasingly turbulent behaviour between her and Stanley. Everyone in this movie seems to want to kill and fuck one another at the same time, so that sort of adds to the whole ‘vibe.’
It’s a frantic, intimate look at female desire and repression — at the ways in which women, at the time, were allowed much more freedom than before, but were still often at the behest of their men. Shirley is an acclaimed author, but her wild personality paired with her success is looked at with mild disdain, people unable to reconcile her talent with her unseemly behaviour. She is also still very much under the thumb of her sometimes sweet, sometimes insufferable husband, whose academic snobbery and criticism towards her work fashions itself as something of a cage. Elisabeth Moss harkens back to her performance in Her Smell, though with an added dose of necessary restraint, and Michael Stuhlbarg as the smug, animated Stanley is almost at camp levels of boisterousness, Stuhlbarg embracing yet another turn as a college professor.
And at the heart of it all is Rose — innocence and deviance caught perfectly within Odessa Young’s performance — torn between two paths, what is expected of her and what she actually wants to be, as her romantic assimilation into Shirley’s chaos pulls the chord tugging her in two directions even more taut. Her desire for love and freedom is still stunted by the subdued aspects of Shirley’s own life, the two women longing for a world that does not yet exist. Decker’s direction conveys this constant, anxious tug-of-war, as if the tension might spill from the screen at any moment. Shirley is not a comfortable watch, but it is a beautiful and desperate one.
Shirley premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 25th
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs