“Shirley” is deliriously entertaining


Courtesy of Neon

Ver Lumod

“Shirley,” the latest film based on the life of horror writer Shirley Jackson, is dizzyingly spellbinding, as it subverts expectations of what a biopic can do.

The titular character, played by Elisabeth Moss, is hard at work on what would become her masterpiece “Hangsaman” in 1951. Living with her professor husband Stanley Hyman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, her creative process involves self-loathing and staying at home all day. This fragile symbiosis is further upended when Stanley’s teaching assistant Fred Nemser, played by Logan Lerman, moves into their home with his pregnant wife Rose, played by Odessa Young. The eccentric couple then gradually manipulate the young couple, as Shirley puts herself hard at work on her novel.

For all intents and purposes, “Shirley” does not fit into the conventional standards of a biopic.

Moreover, it is based on the 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. It doesn’t make sense citing claims of historical inaccuracy, since it uses the character of Shirley Jackson to impart a sensory experience that is free of facts that may otherwise bog the whole proceedings down. Much like Martin Scorsese’s depiction of Jesus Christ in the 1989 film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Shirley” turns its eccentric subject into a vehicle for subjective, trippy and serious entertainment.

Director Josephine Decker is no stranger to experimental films that boggle the mind, one of which is the 2018 arthouse delight “Madeline’s Madeline.” In “Shirley” she is in total control, translating the engrossing script written by Sarah Gubbins into a dizzyingly potent story of creative forces at work. Moreover, Decker makes use of a stacked cast, turning in stellar performances from Stuhlbarg, Lerman, and Young as characters populated in Shirley’s fragile world.

Speaking of the cast, Moss has distinguished herself yet again as a dead ringer for the main character. The actress has played self-destructive characters before in films like “Her Smell,” as well as tormented ones in the recent “Invisible Man” remake. She manages to meld these personas together in a mesmerizing performance. The viewer repulses her and then feels sorry for her in the next breath. It’s only a testament to Moss’s versatile acting.

Much like the recent film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Shirley” provides a window into the momentary independence that its female characters enact.

Rose is a sexually adventurous woman trapped in her duties as a “young wifey” to her academic-minded husband. She finds herself enthralled to Shirley, who is someone with an IDGAF attitude. She holds her on a pedestal where she finds a chance to be as freewheeling as she can be. The resulting complicated relationship is interesting to watch, as the two try to make sense of the stifled opportunities that society doesn’t want them to take.

The film has an oddball quality to it that may excite or irritate the viewer. The beautiful cinematography from Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, combined with the swirling score of Tamar-kali, conspire to create a beautiful mess capturing Shirley’s warped mindset. “Shirley” may have the confounding effect of a bitter cocktail that will test the viewer’s patience. But if one turns off her mind, relax, and float downstream, she will be treated to a reassuringly trippy journey into the depths.

With “Shirley,” Decker inevitably takes on the persona of her subject. She doesn’t aim to provide easy answers, nor try to play it safe. The film’s climax is something to be debated about for years to come, which is a testament to the film’s spellbinding qualities. In fact, Shirley Jackson herself might even approve of the film’s message.

Illustration by Ariel Landry
Illustration by Ariel Landry