The writer-director of one of the best films of 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline – is back with what appears on the surface to be a biopic of horror author Shirley Jackson, who wrote The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This is something quite different to a straightforward biopic, however. The film focuses on a young couple – Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) coming to stay with Lit Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his wife, reclusive author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Fred is busy at the University with Stanley, and although Rose is trying to keep up with her studies, it is soon revealed that she is pregnant. Stanley is concerned about his wife – her depressive episodes where she doesn’t leave her bed, her agoraphobia, her drinking and lack of eating. He asks Rose to look after her, which she reluctantly agrees to. After a fallow period in which Jackson lacks inspiration, she becomes interested in the case of a missing student – Paula – and this becomes the basis of her next novel – Hangsaman. The film follows the time in which Jackson was writing this one work and focuses on how she was influenced by the presence of the missing woman and by Rose.
Shirley is infused with the same Gothic atmosphere as many of Jackson’s stories and can also be seen in a recent film version of We Have Always Lived in the Castle (directed by Stacie Passon), which is about two isolated and reclusive young women. Paula is an almost ghostly presence, haunting Jackson to the point where she becomes obsessive. The level of detail in the production design (by Sue Chan) and costume design (by Amela Baksic) is phenomenal. Because Jackson is confined to her home, the house becomes a character in the film and the daily rituals – such as Rose cooking a hearty meal and Stanley trying to coax Shirley to the table – punctuate the narrative. Jackson has dreams and visions about Paula which increase the eerie feel. There is a woodland scene involving mushrooms (a motif which has cropped up in many recent Gothic-influenced films such as Lady Macbeth, The Beguiled, Phantom Thread) which is full of the sexual tension between Shirley and Rose.
It probably goes without saying that the acting from Moss and Stuhlbarg is incredible. The only slight tarnish on Moss’ performance is that we have seen her do something similar very recently, in Her Smell. But she plays an unhinged woman so well, bitter and angry at the world – especially because it is generally accepted that the professors (including Stanley and Fred) will have affairs with their students. Jackson walks a line between pushing everyone away, but she also clearly craves approval and her husband’s opinions on her writing matter to her. Moss gets a last, lingering shot in which every emotion plays over her face, communicating so many layers of nuanced feelings. Some of Stuhlbarg’s line-readings are extremely memorable: “I know you abhor the hoi polloi” and “decrepit feudal lord” are particular stand-outs. More surprising, however, is the performance from the relatively-unknown Odessa Young as Rose. She is really the central character here and this is a film about women and how they can affect one another. Shirley, Rose and the presence of Paula become bound together, with Rose at the centre and Young’s performance is truly special. If there is any justice in the world, this will be a star-making turn for her.
The score from Tamar-kali, who has three (!) films at Sundance 2020 and also scored Mudbound, is stunning. She gives each of the central three women a theme, which overlap or combine at times. Paula’s presence is felt all the more keenly because of her having a refrain which comes up whenever she is mentioned. The writing from Sarah Gibbons, adapting Susan Scarf Merrell’s book is sharp and witty and of course, Jackson’s own writing is a large aspect of the film. I defy anyone to come out of this film and not immediately search for Jackson’s books, particularly the specific one that is the focus of this film. Decker and Gibbons have unpeeled the writing process, often uncomfortably and reveal that the role of the muse can be a complicated one. Jackson searches for the ethereal form of Paula, who remains frustratingly unknowable, but she has Rose right there, in front of her.
The only downside of seeing films at Sundance is that you sometimes have to wait for a long time before you can watch them again. Shirley is one of those films that will reward repeat viewings, it is rich with details that can be picked apart to your hearts content. It is truly astounding that Decker has made two such different films within two years which both push film-making and genre boundaries, in entirely different ways. She also must be credited with finding the young talent of Helena Howard (Madeline’s Madeline) and Odessa Young (Shirley) and working with them to produce two performances which linger with the viewer long after the film is finished. Decker is a major film-making talent and I cannot wait to see what she makes next.
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Written by: Sarah Gubbins
Cast: Logan Lerman, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young