Directed By Josephine Decker
Starring – Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg
The Plot – As renowned for her morose nature as she is for her horror fiction, writer Shirley Jackson (Moss) is crafting yet another masterpiece when the arrival of newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Young) disrupt her creative process and marriage to literary critic and philandering professor, Stanley Hyman (Stuhlbarg). As Stanley spars to maintain academic dominance over his would-be protégé Fred, Rose attempts to dampen her own ambitions and adjust to married life while living under the roof of their fiery intellectual hosts with quicksilver loyalties and myriad neuroses. When the motives of Shirley’s literary muse prove elusive, Rose’s curiosity and trusting nature make her tender prey for a brilliant author whose only allegiance is to her work.
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, adult language and brief disturbing images
– Ranging performances. Moss is top shelf caliber and the expected scene-stealer in the movie’s titular role, but it’s the way she approaches the character with her combination of tenderness and cruelty that plays into her psychosis, making her as abstract of a character as possible to the point where you’re wondering if she’s being sincere or manipulative towards everyone who crosses her paths. I also appreciated the eye-opening turn from Odessa Young, whose unfurling psychosis and dashing of dreams supplants her character with a tragic element that we can’t help but empathize with. The dynamic between her and Moss is at times riveting for a movie that is advertised as a horror thriller, but layered with more depth the closer you steer towards it, and allowed the two ladies to polish their characterizations for entirely opposite reasons. Michael Stuhlberg is also quite the conniving character, serving as Shirley’s cerebrum for every inspiration or direction the young writer takes while being under this toxic spouse’s control. It allows Michael the chance to conjure some edge to a role that we didn’t know he had, and makes this anything but the expected ladies night that captures the attention of the plot fruitfully.
– Stuffy atmosphere. Decker’s finest spin as a directing presence is her ability to conjure up something ominous and uncertain in a setting that nearly drowns us in claustrophobia, and the unique touches that she makes articulating this household is one that vividly paints the picture for the homeowners storied history that we see front and center in current day. The color scheme is nearly absent from the kind of strokes that we define as beautiful, instead harvesting an overall darkness and absence of light that all but signals something truly unnerving taking shape in the atmosphere. In addition to this, the stacked piles of paperwork and books that surround Shirley’s daily routine feeds off an unhealthy obsession that swallows her whole, all the while preserving importance for the character that helps you understand why this youthful couple would seek to spend so much time with someone so unapologetically miserable to everyone she crosses.
– Enthralling musical score. Composer Tamar Kali is quickly gaining a reputation for one of my favorite up-and-coming composers if only for the way her grinding, pumping compositions emit a consistency in persistence that stirs at your ears like the buzzing you can’t escape when listening to loud music for an exceptionally long period of time. That’s not to say that we she produces is annoying, quite the opposite actually. Her presence over this film gives it a mental unfurling inside the mind of its characters that constantly riddles the anxiety, pushing every conversation towards confrontational levels because of the way its volume slowly elevates with the progression of the conversation. It also helps that nothing she produces ever feels redundant or derivative of similar instrumental pulses from the genre. Kali instead harvests these ticking neurotics that very much envelope the mentality of the characters in frame, as they do audibly narrate the evolution of the sequence they accompany, and it makes for a complete score that I couldn’t shake even hours after concluding this film.
– Unorthodox cinematography. The very same visionary who steered the camera in films like “Victoria” or “Wendy” (Wow!! She has a thing for female first names) is responsible for the gripping presentation in this film, which felt unlike anything that I have seen currently in 2020. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen seems dedicated to voyeurism, and all of its one-sided advantages that allude to the mental chess game taking place between these two vastly different couples. Grovlen pulls from the most awkwardly unexpected angles that not only prove a lot of shapely depth to the kind of story and presentation he is trying to zero in on, but also manufacturing uncertainty that goes a long way when you can’t see the complete picture that a wide angle lens casually offers. It gives so much movement and character to the film’s jarring narrative, which alludes to mental instability, all the while without alienating the audience for a presentation that could be polarizing if its experimentalism misconstrues the narrow path of the narrative.
– Unconventional framing device. “Shirley” is marketed as a biopic, a fact that I don’t entirely agree with once you understand the set-up within this dubious plot. Shirley Jackson and her husband were in fact real life people, and their characterizations and troublesome marriage has been documented as factual throughout historical accuracies, but everything else in the film is fictionally based off of a story of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. So it takes two real life prominent figures, and fleshes them out in a world that they didn’t exist in, creating an unusual hybrid that scatters the truth every bit as much as the lack of clarity that concerns the film. What I love about this is it eludes that ability to be a by-the-numbers biopic that have all recently been structured and plotted similarly, and instead carves its own path of ingenuity that certainly made for a more fascinating take on the jaded writer’s literary prime.
– Transformative production design. Subtle in its rendering is a timestamp and attention to detail for a past decade that the movie covers fantastically without it becoming a gimmick to the movie’s plot. Instead of anything overzealous in its depiction, the film casually inserts these beige three-piece suits, free-flowing gowns, and a couple of 60’s hardtop convertibles into the background of what is taking shape materially in the foreground of the story. In addition to this, the interiors of outdated furniture and dining dishes are especially present, but could be missed by anyone not paying attention to all aspects of the production. This cements its status as a time piece, but beyond that establishes that a production design doesn’t have to be costly if the roots of the film’s story are in the right place, and I was constantly impressed with how effective each of these timely objects preserved believability, despite their subdued inclusions.
– Anything but predictable. “Shirley” features a lot of twists and turns that frankly I didn’t see coming, but none more evident than the dynamic between Shirley and Rose, which preserves two sharp direction turns that I didn’t see coming. Without spoiling anything, the first twist comes in the form of what their friendship evolves to, balancing Rose’s lack of communication with her husband accordingly, as well as the infidelity that Shirley is suffering from her husband at the hands of his college students, which opens up their means of communication based on the pain they share. The second twist takes place in the film’s ambiguously open-ended ending which solidifies the intention of the story’s dual narrative in a way that transforms Rose into the person she was destined to become. It captures the chemistry between the two female leads, both in character and personal, which transfers immensely to the integrity of the movie, and outlines the sponteneity that reflected Shirley’s ahead-of-her-time literary work.
– Flailing biopic. While I did credit the movie for being anything other than a conventional biopic, I can’t help but escape “Shirley” with a nearly complete lack or articulation or fact for the historical figure that brings me any closer to understanding her mentality or motivations. Most of the film’s screenplay focuses on her character from the outside, as in she is another character we’re interacting with instead of the story’s central protagonist. An issue that is strange when you consider that this movie’s one word title is “Shirley”, and we learn twice as much about her guests as we ever do the talented writer. There’s some hints at certain things dealing with her struggling sanity, but I could’ve used more fleshing out in a way that left no doubt that she was the full-fledged lead of the story, instead of a nagging supporting character who gets involved when the story absolutely requires her to.
– Highly convoluted. I understand the intention of what’s taking shape here, with what I interpreted as two respective storylines, one reality and one fantasy in the mind of the writer, but the movie’s clumsy editing does it no favors in comprehending which is which until the anti-climatic ending that loses too much momentum. The other part of the problem stems from events in the foursome’s lives that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Two of the examples here involve a pregnancy without said character ever getting remotely bigger along the way, as well as character motivations that switch and stall at the drop of a hat. It’s hard to invest or fully comprehend what is taking place until you understand the gimmick of the story’s framing device, and even then the story’s final thirty minutes have a difficulty attaining the kind of momentum needed to pull audiences to the finish line. Sloppy made sinful when you consider this is a story centering around a clearly defined writer who is heralded as a visionary even sixty years after her prime.
– Arduous pacing. Even at 105 minutes for the finished product, the execution of the story’s movements, particularly during that of the spontaneous first act, acts as the movie’s biggest adversity to a curious audience. Part of this I blame on manipulative advertising, which market the movie as a horror thriller that it never truly becomes. There were several times throughout the film when I was legitimately bored waiting for what was teased to catch up between the dynamic of the two couples, and even with a screenplay that intentionally blurs the lines of fantasy and reality, there isn’t enough sizzle along the way to keep audiences invested through a series of bait and switches.
My Grade: 7/10 or C+