“A clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” Shirley Jackson (played by Elisabeth Moss) grumbles at her husband as he stumbles around her messy bedroom. By that yardstick, Shirley might be the smartest person alive; her North Bennington abode is so full of dirty dishes and random junk that it feels almost haunted. But that’s the mood the director Josephine Decker wants to conjure in Shirley—one where even a mundane home has a distinct air of spookiness. There are no ghosts around the corner, but demons still abound with Shirley, one of the great horror storytellers of the 20th century.
Decker’s film is a biopic, but an unconventional one. Its core narrative is invented, yet rooted in the facts of Jackson’s life. The movie is set in the early 1950s, after the publication of her acclaimed short story “The Lottery” has made her a minor cause célèbre in the literary world, and it follows her as she tries to write her 1951 novel, Hangsaman. But Decker and the film’s screenwriter, Sarah Gubbins (who adapted Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel), weave the reality of Shirley’s struggles with agoraphobia and anxiety into a fictional horror story of sorts. Shirley and her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), are the only monsters lurking in their home, and that’s more than enough for an unsettling tale.
Decker’s last film was the beguiling and unique Madeline’s Madeline. That work was an examination of how the artistic give-and-take between a teenage girl and her drama teacher turns vampiric, as the mentor practically feeds off her student’s experiences. Shirley has some of that energy, too, except it’s focused on a real-life genius whose creative energies swirled with darkness. Her mentee, the impressionable student Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), is fictional, but she serves as a stand-in for anyone who might be bewitched by Shirley’s writing, as well as for young women in the ’50s who were barred from many intellectual pursuits.
To Rose, Shirley is an immediately alluring but frightening figure. The film begins with Rose and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), a Ph.D. student studying under Stanley, moving into Stanley and Shirley’s home to help around the house. Shirley quickly sniffs out that Rose is pregnant (a magic power of hers, she claims) and starts picking away at her insecurities—over her young marriage, her husband’s growing disinterest in her pregnant body, and Shirley’s insistence that all married men prove to be total philanderers like her husband.
If the film were just a psychodrama between a young couple and an older one, it’d be entertaining enough. Decker is superb at simply setting an atmosphere, and all of her favorite moody tricks—hazy, hypnotic photography; groaning sound effects; extreme, dizzying close-ups—are on display here. But that creeping strangeness, that sense of Rose and Fred’s relationship slowly rotting inside the Jackson-Hyman abode, isn’t Decker’s only interest. There’s less ambiguity here, after all: Stanley is a clear villain from minute one, a preening, flirty buffoon who constantly undermines Shirley’s artistic talent, and Fred is quickly in his thrall.
The relationship between Shirley and Rose is more complex—both parties are mesmerized by the positives and negatives they see in each other. To Shirley, Rose is rather simple and idealistic, but youthful and beautiful, full of potential. To Rose, Shirley is frightening and cruel, but a genius who is unafraid to challenge or humiliate anyone who might cross her. Shirley is liberated, a celebrated author of national renown, yet she’s practically confined to her home and racked with anxiety and self-doubt—a contradiction that clearly fascinates Decker.
Though this is a highly specific period piece, Shirley’s claustrophobia resonates loudly in 2020, especially because Decker renders it with inimitable panache. The story of Hangsaman is equally intriguing for a contemporary audience—based on the actual disappearance of a Bennington student, it mixes fiction and reality to tell a tale of a young woman losing her mind at a liberal-arts college. Stanley dismisses the conceit as trashy, but it feels familiar now, not just because Shirley itself plays so fast and loose with the facts, but also because America’s appetite for true crime has only grown. Decker’s filmmaking is often dreamlike, but her storytelling has a cruel bite of reality to it—just as Jackson’s writing did decades before.