Director Josephine Decker's newest feature, SHIRLEY, is a thrillingly disturbing piece giving us a twisted insight into the mind of author Shirley Jackson.
Newlyweds Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) have just moved to Vermont, with a baby on the way and Fred starting a university job with professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who happens to be the husband of Shirley Jackson. Though Rose's first interactions with Shirley leave her unimpressed with the author's dark, often cruel personality, when Stanley offers her a housekeeping position to help Shirley through her bout of depression, she accepts.
Once they have established life in the house, Rose finds bonding with Shirley a lot easier. She has a witchy, morbid sensibility, and Stanley insists that she get back to work on her next novel. Rose begins to do odd jobs for Shirley to help her with her work (she is writing Hangsaman), while her husband seems to stay at the university later and later.
Based not on of one of Shirley Jackson's biographies but on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, SHIRLEY is by no means a biopic - clearly, since much of the film's perspective is from Rose, she and her husband being entirely fictional. But though we see through Rose's eyes most of the time, the story very much revolves around Shirley, and her impact on Rose. The film paints a very different picture of Jackson than her real life counterpart, displaying a snippet of her life through the lens of her own voice as a horror novelist. And so, the Shirley we see is a twisted, more heightened version, stemming from the truth but not quite true to form.
The real thrill of the film is watching the strange relationship between Shirley and Stanley. The couple is spiteful and cold with each other, and seem to have an arrangement that allows Stanley to have affairs as long as he hounds her to write, and she lets him read her work. If Shirley were any less biting of a character, she would seem trapped in a cage, though perhaps that is why she is so biting. Moss and Stuhlbarg are dynamic in their portrayal of this weird, unsettling couple.
For those who are fans of Shirley Jackson's work, the film is worth the watch simply for its tone. SHIRLEY is now available to stream at www.midtowncinema.com!