Author Shirley Jackson, famous for stories such as “The Lottery” and her novel, The Haunting of Hill House, was a fascinating, complicated women who has long deserved a proper biopic. Notoriously brash and reclusive, and stuck in a contentious marriage with academic and literary critic Stanley Hyman, hers is a story with twists, turns, and frights enough to populate one of her notoriously macabre stories. Shirley, however, is not that movie.
It is, instead, a psychological thriller—bursting with elements of horror—in the vein of one of Jackson’s tales, with Jackson cast as a character. Based on the novel of the same name by author Susan Scarf Merrell, what Shirley is, first and foremost, is an homage. Those interested in learning more about the author’s life need not concern themselves here; this is not the film for you.
Which isn’t to say that director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins got any part of her personality wrong. Like Merrell’s novel, the film is a shockingly accurate caricature of Jackson, pulling from documented biographies with, of course, plenty of artistic license given. What it does do, however, is create a delightfully twisted psychological parable that Jackson herself might be proud of.
Elizabeth Moss stars as a fictionalized version of horror’s godmother, bringing her indelible talents to one of her best ever performances. Which is saying a lot because, increasingly, it’s becoming clear that Moss is one of the best performers working today. Each new role she takes seems to be better than the last and, as Jackson, Moss reaches new heights as an actor and as an artist. Combined with Decker’s direction, the script from Gubbins, and Merrell’s source material, Shirley is a fascinating look at the nature of perception and the horror of being alive.
Jackson is, however, more of a supporting character in Shirley, serving as our window into the life of newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman). With Fred having just been hired as an assistant professor at the university where Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaches, the couple is invited to live with Jackson and her husband while they establish themselves in a new town. This leads to a contentious relationship with the author, who is currently wracked by depression while she begins work on her new novel, Hangsaman. After agreeing to working in the home as a housekeeper for a short period, Rose is slowly dragged into Jackson’s world of paranoia and deceit, causing her to question choices that she has made.
The interplay between Moss and Young is nothing short of magical. Theirs is a slow waltz of increasing madness aggravated both by their differences and similarities. The two characters act as mirrors of each other and, when turned facing, form a recursive dance of devilish delights. Stuhlbarg acts as something of a demonic emcee, gaslighting both women, and Fred, with his narcissism and jealousies. Together, the quartet swirl with maddening intensity as the tangled webs of their relationships grow more and more twisted.
Decker and Gubbins, meanwhile, play a long game, ratcheting up the insanity by small measures so that you barely notice how badly things are starting to turn. The script is a wonderful blend of fiction and non-fiction, itself playing with the themes of reality. As director, Decker captures the slow descent into madness with an artist’s eye, culminating into the best film of her career so far.
In the end, Shirley is a pitch perfect homage to Jackson and the themes she explored throughout her life and career. At turns horrifying and captivating, it is the perfect companion piece for fans of the author who is, in the film’s own way, brought back to life beautifully by Moss. The creeping dread and slowly rising tension plays well off the Jackson oeuvre, resulting in a film that is taut, terrifying, and captivating.
Shirley is now available on Hulu.