“What becomes of your dear heroine?”
“What happens to all lost girls… they go mad.”
Many of us have heard of horror authors Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft, or William Peter Blatty, but many of us have forgotten author Shirley Jackson. Jackson, most known for her popular ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House, is an underrated author with a series of short stories and novels – most notably, The Lottery. The Lottery remains one of The New Yorker’s most controversial pieces, which brought in an unimaginable amount of letters from their readers. In fact, the most letters to ever be received — in response to a piece — in the magazine’s history. While Jackson seems to be a forgotten name amongst the plethora of horror authors, the new movie, Shirley, takes a look at the disturbed mind of the genius writer.
Shirley takes place in the 1950s, and follows a young couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young), who move into a college town where Fred will serve as a professor’s assistant to Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). The young couple are soon taken in by the professor and asked to live at his home along with his wife, Shirley (Elisabeth Moss). Shirley needs constant looking after due to her anxiety and agoraphobia — she cannot be left on her own. Her writing consumes her… when she wants to write. Professor Stanley, who has a couple of screws loose himself, enlists the help of young Rose to be Shirley’s caretaker, while the men “go to work.” The women, however, stay at home, enveloped in the vast emptiness of the world as they begin to research the disappearance of a female Bennington student, which will inspire Shirley’s next book, Hangsaman. Shirley and Rose begin to see themselves in this young girl’s shoes. They picture their own day to day tasks, and their conversations, as the female student’s activities before she disappeared. Day by day, these ladies fall down a shoot of madness that drives Rose to shine a light on the biases of her life, and truth of being a woman in a masculine world.
How many more times will I say this, Moss is one of the greatest actresses working today. Moss, who plays the tortured author, gives herself fully to the roll — diving deep into the psychosis of Jackson’s mind. The chemistry between Young and Moss are perfectly fine-tuned to present the madness that takes over these women’s lives. And though the relationship can, at times, be convoluted in substituting the visual intensity over substance, these actresses brilliantly convey the hurt and anger behind their character’s eyes. Stuhlbarg and Lerman are pivotal parts of the puzzle, and contribute great performances. However, this story is female centered —illustrating the discrepancies of men vs. women — especially when it comes to education, marriage, and parental responsibilities. A topic that echoes now, more than ever, in our society.
Adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley sheds a light on Jackson’s life. I wouldn’t say that Shirley is a documentary. In fact, the film is no more a documentary than The Hours is a documentary about Virginia Wolff. The two films showcase two extraordinary female authors, but are portrayed as if they, themselves, are the characters in their own novels. The mental anxiety, and suffocation from their surroundings, bleed onto the pages of their books. That’s what makes Shirley so interesting. She, herself, is lost in her own mind, feeding off the cruelties of the world, and taking Rose with her. Director Josephine Decker, is able to capitalize on these feelings by creating something unique from behind the camera. Through the use of a handheld camera, Decker heightens the feeling of uneasiness in the audience. Many times, Decker shoots behind a group of people, or through small cracks in the door. You feel as though what you’re seeing may not be something you’re supposed to see — a “fly on the wall” vibe.
The story that envelopes Shirley could easily be taken straight out of Jackson’s mind. With spell-binding intensity, Moss delivers another exceptional performance. Shirley will stay with you long after viewing it, making it a terrific homage to a woman who was a master in her craft.
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, and Michael Stuhlbarg