It was Pablo Picasso who once said that “Women are suffering machines.” It’s a characteristic that’s long been canonized in the form of Catholic saints and celebrated in literature and art. But for many women to defy that proclamation would only bring further misfortune, leaving only two choices: either smile and let your soul die piece by indignant piece, or embrace the darkness and learn to enjoy it. Josephine Decker’s Shirley is about a woman who opted for the latter: Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), author of novels like The Lottery and The Haunting of Hill House. She was mocked by her peers, mistreated by her husband, and burdened by mental illness, she lived with the psychic evils that lurk in her writing. But for Decker, what’s important about Shirley’s misery is how she used it to fuel her work.
Calling Shirley a “biopic” is a bit of a stretch. The details of Jackson’s life have been thrown into a chronological blender and scrabbled together until they’re basically fictional, which is exactly what was done in Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same title. The writer technically isn’t even the film’s protagonist. Instead, it’s Rose (Odessa Young), the meek young housewife who serves as submissive yin to Shirley’s snarling yang. The film begins in the early ’50s with Rose and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), who are en route to Bennington, Vermont, where they plan to stay for a few days with Shirley and her professor and literary critic husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (a gusto filled Michael Stuhlbarg), whom Fred sees as something of a mentor and whom he will serve as a new teaching assistant for. They arrive in the middle of a lively bohemian party, with Shirley the brilliant author holding court as Stanley beams from the sidelines. But it doesn’t take long for the toxicity of the older couple’s drunken, manipulative relationship to begin poisoning their houseguests as well.
But soon Fred and Rose become long-term houseguests, with Stanley pushing Rose into the role of Shirley’s caretaker and companion, so that he can purse his work and his extramarital affairs in peace. The academic setting and the couple-on-couple dynamic might bring to mind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and for a while the movie plays like a furiously entertaining comedy of marital discord. But soon things shift, as Rose’s looking after Shirley is no easy task: She hasn’t left in the house in ages, and her writing has ground to a halt. Of which Stanley knows all too well. But Shirley’s writing does eventually get back on track, with Rose soon coming to be a kind of muse.
Through it all, this is as Gothic of a story as any Jackson wrote, a fairy tale about a beautiful, intelligent young woman who gets tricked by treacherous men into becoming the servant of a dreadful witch. But in this version, the witch is also the heroine’s only friend. Shirley’s sharp tongue and interest in the occult has made her a pariah in Bennington, and Stanley’s fragile ego leads him to treat his more successful wife like a child. But Shirley’s imprisonment in their gloomy farmhouse, where most of the film takes place, is largely self-imposed. Rose is stuck there by larger societal forces, and the more time she spends with Shirley, the more she learns to twist her unhappiness into morbid fascination. Together, they peer over the edge, titillated by the oblivion that seems to be the only escape from the frustration that defines their lives.
Interdependent characters representing aspects of a whole was a common theme in Jackson’s work, and Rose and Shirley similarly embody two versions of 1950s womanhood — Rose the “good” wife, Shirley the “bad” one — literally in dialogue with one another. Even the actors’ performances are complementary, as Moss’ closed-off, defensive scowling contrasts with Young’s sweetness. And the dynamic between the women remains potent, even in a soft middle section where Decker’s impressionistic style begins to muddle Sarah Gubbins’ structured screenplay a bit (along with an undeveloped erotic dimension). “Most young women are fascinated with their own mortality,” Shirley tells Rose at one point, popping a deadly poisonous mushroom into her mouth. It turns out to be a cruel prank, but in that moment both women feel truly alive and on edge.
As one might expect from the director of Madeline’s Madeline — another film about creativity as much as anything else — Shirley adds layers of reality and artifice to slowly blur the lines between this twisted friendship and Jackson’s new novel, inspired by a missing Bennington student. The deeper the author plunges into the project, the more subjective the movie becomes, revealing the dark visions that descend on Shirley in ghastly, expressive bursts. Though Shirley is far more conventional when compared to Madeline’s Madeline, Decker’s sensibilities are still seen; as she shoots her subjects largely in intimate handheld closeup, their complexions grey in the dim light behind curtains drawn against the warm, glowing sunlight outside. Shirley’s soul is so poisoned that the only things that make her happy are sowing chaos and writing, and she can’t do one without the other. It’s a sick coping mechanism, assuredly so. But she comes by it honestly. With line-blurring, complex psychology, Shirley delivers as a daring, gothic anti-biopic.
Shirley is available to stream on Hulu