Review: Josephine Decker's 'Shirley' is Wickedly Delicious & Satisfying
by Zofia Wijaszka
June 5, 2020
Elisabeth Moss never disappoints. The actress proves this yet again taking on the role of a mysterious and extraordinary horror writer in Josephine Decker's film Shirley, which originally premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Written by Sarah Gubbins and based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, this oddly satisfying portrayal of lust, attraction, and stimulating inspiration holds one's interest alongside a first-class cast that dazzles. What comes to the forefront in Shirley is the emotional bond between two very different women. One thing is certain – you’re in for a pleasurable treat.
The muse of an artistic mind comes unexpectedly. It can be in any shape or form. Sometimes it's music, and sometimes it's the fleeting moment of peace or even a person. And sometimes, it's that one girl, a young wife who just moved into your house with her husband. Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), newlyweds, agree on the proposition of Fred's professor, Stanley Hayman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and move into his place. They stay in their charming farmhouse while they navigate their fresh marriage and teaching at the university. At their initial arrival, the young couple meets Fred's wife - Shirley Jackson. A peculiar, enigmatic woman who barely leaves the house as she's working on her next novel. When difficulties arise in Rose and Fred's life, the young woman spends more time with her favorite horror writer, and both discover a different kind of world, where inspiration is saturated with desire.
Shirley commences slowly. But what may seem as weariness at first, quickly shifts into gratifying, delicious pleasure. It grows to the point of insanity, madness. We're shown blurry, close shots of faces or hair. Quick, loud notes of the violin give the picture a weird, unsettling feeling. Exceptional outfits and the atmosphere of the farmhouse of the 50s add spice to the tension between the characters. One of my favorite elements of the film are scenes that don't make sense separately, but after a while, you can understand that it's Shirley's imagination shining through.
While the audience is getting to know both marriages, and with that, four individuals, Stuhlbarg & Lerman's roles stay somewhat in the background. They are constants in the film, but they don't have such complex development as Shirley & Rose. The film focuses on the strong connection developing between these women. As time passes, they get closer. A younger woman inspires Shirley. As one can know, there is a very thin line between attraction and inspiration. While we can comprehend that Shirley and her husband are mentally messing with the young couple, we cannot shake the feeling we have for the writer. Before being mostly alone, now she has someone to lean on. She's clearly suffering from mental issues, chain-smokes (this calms her), and is afraid to go outside. With the arrival of the guests, she's finally inspired. Shirley gives us an exceptional yet chilly insight into the mind of a writer. Fragments of Shirley's book narrated by Moss give off Misery's crippling, bloodcurdling atmosphere. Her character not only writes, she also practices magic, as seen in one scene. She can also sense things such as Rose being pregnant. "Let's pray for a boy. The world is too cruel for girls," she says. It's a simple quote. Still, it speaks volumes, even in contemporary discourse.
Although titular Shirley is scary and intimidating, we can see that her husband is the one in control. Stanley is her greatest, most demanding critic. He watches over her shoulder and tries to read what his wife writes - even if it's not finished. Whatever Shirley's husband says about her work is sacred. Yet, their relationship changes as her bond with Rose matures. Even though she uses the girl as a reference for the main character in her book, Rose transforms, evolves, and becomes a stronger, more mature woman than before.
Elisabeth Moss again proves her amazing skills. Following her incredible recurring role in "The Handmaid's Tale" and her starring role in The Invisible Man, here the actress charms the audience as a ruthless Shirley Jackson, who wears colorful clothes and crooked but very classy eyeglasses. She's often in her nightgown, cigarette hand, hair tousled. If amongst guests, she's painfully honest and cruel. Her character blends reality and fiction, where the viewer doesn't know what's real and what's not—all the while touching on subjects of mental health. The slow process of going mad (both Shirley and Rose) symbolizes the real struggle. Odessa Young reveals more of her phenomenal talent as shy Rosie. Her character shines a light on stay-at-home mothers and the hurtful, cruel patriarchy of the 50s. Both female characters coexist and evolve by being around each other without a "male hand." Lerman and Stuhlbarg drift in the universe of the main female characters but are used more as a background for their extraordinary bond.
Decker's Shirley is easily one of my favorite pictures of this year. I utterly adored the quick yet emotional notes of the violin that accompanied some of the most intense scenes in the film. The director wonderfully showcases this oddly satisfying, ugly at times yet wickedly honest relationship between two women. As Fred and Stanley's characters are in the background, we can give Shirley and Rose our undivided attention. The film’s depiction of women’s perception of other women, and themselves, is crucial. The director presents us with the dark truth – we are our harshest critics. With that, Young and Moss's duo dazzles. If you want to see the madness in the writer's mind, complex and multidimensional female characters, and emotional bonds created between them - this is the film for you.
Zofia's Rating: 5 out of 5
Follow Zofia on Twitter - @thefilmnerdette