I was already feeling done with biopics. And then Bohemian Rhapsody came out, and I was super done with biopics. It’s a genre that instantly works against me instead of for me: the formulaic nature and the aggrandizing of a subject’s flaws and genius are often just more than I can take. So I appreciate seeing flexibility or flourishes in that genre, such as the ones punctuated by a movie like Shirley. Shirley transcends the generic biopic form – it contains enough fiction and speculation that it basically isn’t even a biopic, other than it contains characters who were real people – instead functioning as a moody piece of character work concerned more with themes than with historical fact.
Shirley, adapted from a novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, paints a mostly fictional portrait of famed horror author Shirley Jackson, known for works like The Haunting of Hill House. I say mostly because the film clearly uses real influences from Jackson’s life, such as her writing career, her famed reclusiveness, and controlled marriage, while embellishing or wholesale removing other components (for example, Jackson had children, who are conspicuously absent in this film). With the film, director Josephine Decker paints a picture with dark, real-life tones from Jackson’s life, but instead chooses to focus not on Jackson but on two couples on parallel tracks in life at different points in time.
Shirley opens with young, recently-married and recently-pregnant couple Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) en route to visit Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), where Fred is set to be Stanley’s new assistant at the university. On the train ride to Jackson’s home, Rose reads one of her short stories. Instead of being disgusted by its horror, Rose finds herself turned on, prompting a risqué trip to the train bathroom with her husband. This opening scene sets the tone for what we can expect from a friendship between these two couples: Rose has a deep fascination with the author and her macabre work, but she suppresses her fascination by channeling that energy into a more 1950’s traditional desire with her husband.
Rose and Fred’s intended short stay turns into a more permanent living situation when Stanley complains that his wife isn’t performing her household duties like she should – an intense spell of writer’s block has all but incapacitated her. Though Rose is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, Fred and Stanley pressure her into becoming a housewife for the four of them, cooking, cleaning, and generally taking care of Jackson as she struggles to get out of bed. The four settle into the arrangement slowly, with Stanley and Fred immediately bonding but with Rose keeping a fearful distance from Jackson as she exhibits unpredictable volatility and anger. Slowly, though, Jackson begins to see herself in Rose, and the two develop a deeper bond – a bond jeopardized by walking a tightwire between their own ambitions and the larger expectations from them as wives in 1950’s Americana.
At its most predictable moments, Shirley is a tale of free-spirited, liberated intellectuals and artists whose personal vanity and talent create a hostile and competitive atmosphere. Jackson’s husband sleeps with students and faculty as he pleases (an agreement between them, but one only he seems to benefit from) while constantly implying to others that Jackson’s agoraphobia and writers block are albatrosses he must bear in his role as the strong and supportive partner. In the home, however, he’s controlling and at times manipulative, and Jackson longs for his praise, even as the partner with more career success. Their relationship is also more multi-faceted than that, though, which elevates the film entirely; it’s fraught with the inequities of the era, but somehow also manages to come across as a true partnership among two people with a deep understanding and acceptance of one another. This is especially true when there are other people in the mix, such as Rose and Fred.
Though the unique details of the famed writers life might be what draw you to a film like Shirley, you’ll end up staying for the performances. The obvious standout here is Moss in her portrayal as the titular character – it’s hard to think of a performance of hers I don’t like, but this one feels particularly unique from her backlog of previous characters. She dons some physical makeup and changes to make her look distinct, but the performance completely transforms Moss into someone older, wiser, and angrier than we’ve seen her before.
My biggest complaint with Shirley would be a sub-plot that feels really undercooked. In addition to looking at the relationships between these two couples, Shirley focuses on Jackson’s process of writing, and portrays her breaking free of writer’s block when she finds inspiration in the disappearance of a young female student. The woman’s disappearance is explored in experimental ways, and it’s even vaguely hinted that perhaps Jackson’s husband could just maybe have known something about it, but the morsels of this plot are just enough to be intriguing while being far too few to feel satisfying.
Still, if you’re interested in a deep dive into the psyche of a moody gothic horror writer, you could do a lot worse. Actually, I honestly can’t think of any other films that even fill that niche anyway, but you get my meaning. Shirley is available streaming on Hulu starting June 5.