There is an equal amount of aesthetic disorientation going on in director Josephine Decker’s Shirley—blurry imagery, discordant sound effects—as there was in her last film, Madeline’s Madeline. Yet this time the techniques have a more precise purpose and unexpectedly lead to greater clarity. Shirley isn’t a masterful film, but it suggests that Decker has one in her.
Elisabeth Moss stars as Shirley Jackson, the real-life horror author behind the short story “The Lottery” and the novel The Haunting of Hill House. Decker’s movie, adapted by Sarah Gubbins from a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, dramatizes a few months in Jackson’s life when she and her professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg) bring a younger couple (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) into their home. The younger man serves as the professor’s teaching assistant, while Rose, his wife, is awkwardly expected to play multiple roles: maid, cook, assistant, and possible friend to the erratic Shirley—who has not left the house in two months while trying to finish a book.
Shirley is never quite sure whose perspective it wants to prioritize: that of the title character, or of Rose. It’s simultaneously about how the younger woman experiences the older novelist, and how Shirley finds inspiration in her new house guest. Rose stands in for the victim at the center of Shirley’s novel—a coed who goes missing—but also, less sympathetically, she reminds Shirley of the female students her husband rotates for dalliances as part of their open marriage. At the same time—especially as Rose’s husband begins to follow a similar pattern—Rose begins to resemble an earlier version of Shirley: that of a promising mind who is stuck in the house while the men get to exercise both their intellectual and sexual prowess. (Stuhlbarg is particularly effective as a manipulatively performative academic who loves having a talented wife as long as she stays at home.)
I wish Young’s performance, as Rose, was up to all of this heavy lifting. After registering with force in the opening moments—propositioning her husband on a train, talking about how Jackson’s writing makes her feel “thrillingly horrible”—she fades into the background and allows Rose to become a merely symbolic figure. Perhaps this was inevitable when Moss arrives on the scene. She’s a formidable talent who always grabs the camera’s attention, but perhaps she’s too grabby here. There’s always a wildness to Moss’ characters, but that ferocity usually bubbles up from somewhere beneath. Here—sporting a creaky accent and big eyeglasses—everything is on the outside. She’s doing a woozy variation on Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That’s a lot to add on top of Decker’s impressionistic filmmaking, which literalizes the clanking in Shirley’s mind, as well as the unsettling inner workings of her imagination (one recurring image is that of Rose walking into the woods and turning toward the camera, revealing a blurred face).
To be fair, Moss delivers a great moment at the end of the film, where the camera remains focused on her as she sits at a table, her husband seen indistinctly over her shoulder, off in another room. We can tell that he’s holding a bunch of papers, and Shirley flinches with the rustling of each one. Eventually we realize she has given him her finished manuscript and is desperate to hear his opinion of it. I won’t tell you what that is, but I will say that Moss’ nonverbal response fully reveals what sort of psychological house of horrors she lives in. It’s hard to imagine one of Jackson’s actual stories being any scarier.