Film critic Staci Layne Wilson reviews Shirley, a slice of life on the famous pioneering horror author, Shirley Jackson. Written and directed by women, this story doesn’t always put females in the best light. But is this highly fictionalized biopic worth the watch anyway? Read on to find out.
Shirley, a Sundance Film Festival darling about the famous horror author Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House, published in 1959), is being billed as a drama and a thriller. Drama, yes. Thrills, no.
Shirley, starring the mesmerizing Elisabeth Moss in the title role, is a slow, calculated seduction—which mirrors the story of 40-something Shirley and her officious husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as they set cruel psychological traps for the young newlyweds that come to stay as their live-in help. Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) only begin to see their spider/fly predicament when it’s far too late.
Rose is a huge fan of Jackson’s prose and wants to be a writer herself someday. Fred is there to work as a teaching assistant to Stanley, who is employed at the local college. Soon, the couple’s starry-eyed optimism about the world of creatives is crumpled by the damaged intellectuals who play covert mind games and wage subtle emotional warfare on innocents with evil glee. But unlike, say, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), there’s no flair or fanfare to Shirley. It’s dreary and depressing. Jackson is a gifted writer, but she’s no Dorothy Parker when it comes to the cutting remark—think: Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994).
I would much rather watch a more traditional biopic on Ms. Jackson, as I’m personally interested in the world of horror literature and the process of the female author in the male-dominated 1950s. Shirley is highly fictionalized and based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell (the screenplay is written by Sarah Gubbins). The film is set during a real period in Jackson’s life (with some artistic license taken on the timeline), but it’s built around incidents, relationships, and characters, that are completely made-up. Rose and Fred are not based on real people.
While the story and presentation may not be to my personal preference, I will say director Josephine Decker does bring out some beautiful acting performances. Moss is always wonderful (even in the preposterous The Invisible Man, also out this year), but she shows a lot of texture and nuance beyond the textbook narcissist written here. She’s ugly and enticing at the same time. Stuhlbarg is fantastic as well, the perfect partner in crime to his more understated wife. Young and Lerman are wholly believable as their dreamed-up prey.
With its intense, jangled score, shaky hand-held cinematography, and dim lighting, Shirley feels almost as unsettling as one of the author’s own misanthropic novellas. While the tack works on some levels, it adds too much to an already heavy, uncomfortable atmosphere. Shirley doesn’t paint women—or people, really—in a very flattering light. Many viewers won’t want to see it through till the end, though the conclusion is apropos and (almost) worth the wait.