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Sorry Ms. Jackson – ‘Shirley’

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The biopic has been a crucial part of the cinematic landscape since the very beginning. So many of our most acclaimed films have been built around the lives and narratives of real people. Whether they are cradle-to-grave or period snapshot, they share the stories of figures that have in some way shaped the world around them.

But when is a biopic not a biopic? When it’s “Shirley.”

The new film – directed by Josephine Decker from a script adapted by Sarah Gubbins from the novel of the same name by Sarah Scarf Merrell – takes a look inside the life of the notable and notorious writer Shirley Jackson, whose genre-adjacent fiction was among the most chilling of the mid-20th century.

With a dynamite performance by Elisabeth Moss in the title role, “Shirley” is not only a deconstruction of its subject, but of the very notion of biographical film. It is a sharp, biting film – one unafraid to lay bare the basic unpleasantness of its characters. By refusing to be bound by traditional tropes, this film offers up a striking and impactful interpretation of the creative process and the emotional and physical struggles that can accompany that process.

Rose Nemser (Odessa Young, “The Giant”) is on her way to Vermont. It’s the late 1940s and she is accompanying her husband Fred (Logan Lermer, TV’s “Hunters”) to Bennington College. He has just landed a prestigious assignment as a teaching assistant to the freewheeling Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, TV’s “Traitors”), a professor at the school.

Upon arrival, the Nemsers are to spend a few days at Hyman’s home until they can find a place of their own. It is here that they meet Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, “The Invisible Man”), notorious author and Hyman’s wife. The young couple are quickly introduced to the combative toxicity that seems to be the foundation of their hosts’ marriage.

Rose’s initial enthusiasm for the move – she has big plans to audit classes and maintain her intellectual edge before returning to school – soon dissipates as Stanley asks her to help his unstable and agoraphobic wife deal with the household. She is now a de facto housekeeper, cooking and cleaning and doing assorted chores.

Shirley is working on a novel based on a real-life disappearance (it would become 1951’s “Hangsaman”); she’s becoming obsessive with regards to the details of the case, scant though they may be. Her work habits are unhealthy and inconsistent; she chainsmokes constantly and misses meals. Meanwhile, Stanley is a looming presence, serving as her first reader and editor with an oiliness that is both condescending and self-serving.

At first, the Rose/Shirley dynamic is strictly adversarial. As time passes, however, their relationship evolves. While the combativeness never fully goes away, there’s also a connection. Something resembling a friendship begins to grow, even as Shirley finds herself haunted by dreams and visions in which the missing girl of her story is conflated with Rose.

These relationships continue along their complex and unpredictable paths, veering from sensitivity to savagery and back again. And at the center of it all, a tormented, tragic genius unable to stray far from the journey of self-immolation she is destined to complete.

“Shirley” is not a biopic in the traditional sense. Nor is it fully fictional. Instead, it exists somewhere in between. It’s an apt way to look at Jackson, honestly – a confluence of artist and artistry that is reflective of a flawed and conflicted person. By focusing on a very narrow window – this is post-“The Lottery,” which was in The New Yorker in 1948 (we see Rose read it on the train) and pre-completion of “Hangsaman,” which published in 1951 – it’s very much a snapshot-style film, albeit one that is unafraid to take stylistic and substantive liberties with the subject. That sort of line-blurring doesn’t always work. It does here.

All credit to Josephine Decker here for attacking this story and this subject with fearlessness. Not only does the director compose some absolutely striking aesthetic moments, but she is able to capture the insularity and isolation of the creative process. Jackson’s general misanthropy is front and center, as are her fear and insecurity, all of it rendered with unblinking vigor by Decker’s directorial eye.

It will surprise no one to learn that Elisabeth Moss gives an outstanding performance as Shirley Jackson. Few performers are as willing as Moss to lean into fundamental unpleasantness – she doesn’t seem to be beholden to a desire to be liked. Moss’s Jackson is witheringly dismissive and casually hateful, tossing out off-handed cruelty with nary a care. She is relentlessly intense, her talent and her damage both painfully obvious. It is a spirited and inspired performance.

Stuhlbarg is generally underrated as a performer, but turns like this one are a reminder of just how good he is. Stanley is an unapologetic opportunist and a gleeful hedonist, a man so convinced of his superiority that he frames himself as the arbiter of his more-talented wife’s success. There’s a controlling sleaziness there that is just exquisite. Lerman is quite good as well, albeit in the least flashy role of the bunch. He embodies the reek of entitlement, presenting as a guy who is where he is because of societal mores instead of talent. He is the personification of mediocrity rewarded. And Young has perhaps the most difficult job of all, going head to head with a powerhouse like Moss. In her hands, Rose becomes a worthwhile opposite to Shirley; Young does exceptional work in endowing Rose with all of the frustrations and resentments inherent to being an intelligent and ambitious woman in that time.

You might think this all sounds a little like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” If so, you’d be right – there’s more than a whiff of that classic here, particularly in a couple of acid-dripping exchanges around the dinner table. We don’t get quite as much cross-relationship interaction (though Stanley gets creepily gropey on Rose a couple of times), but there’s plenty of BAE (Big Albee Energy) at work.

There’s nothing conventional about “Shirley.” And why would there be? There’s nothing conventional about Shirley Jackson – a film about her should reflect that truth. And this movie does just that, driven by Decker’s sharp aesthetic eye and an excellent cast. Moss brings her usual transcendence to the role, supported by first-rate turns from Stuhlbarg, Young and Lerman. A strong, engaging film experience.

“Shirley” is dark and weird, often compelling and occasionally confusing – just like its subject.

[4.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 08 June 2020 11:03

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