“I read your story” Rose (Odessa Young) blurts out to Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) in Josephine Decker’s hypnotic psychodrama, Shirley, about the titular author. “It made me feel thrillingly horrible.”
The reclusive horror writer’s ears prick up at the perverse compliment. She’s aggrieved that her controlling husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) has invited this young woman to stay in their home, but she can also smell an opportunity. Following Stanley’s lead, Shirley manipulates Rose into becoming something between a maid and a muse. Cooking her food, cleaning her house, and assisting with research for her upcoming novel, Rose is Shirley’s confidante and emotional crutch, her pupil and potential lover.
On the heels of 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline, a mind-warping movie that blurred the line between collaboration and exploitation in the theater world, Decker returns to explore creative vampirism from a different angle — and with a notably higher budget. Shirley marks the first time Decker has directed a script she didn’t write herself (the screenplay is by Sarah Gubbins) and pairs her with marquee-name actors.
“Happily, I don’t think I exploited anyone on this movie; you’d have to ask Elisabeth Moss.” Decker jokes in a recent Zoom interview. “I’m interested in how women connect with each other, how they support or manipulate each other. That’s the juicy center of our film: the relationship between these two women who are in some way liberated by the other one’s presence.”
Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, Shirley is set roughly in 1948, shortly after Jackson’s infamous story “The Lottery” has first been published in The New Yorker and her literary stock is on the rise. Her openly unfaithful husband Stanley Hyman is a professor at Bennington College in Vermont, and he hires Rose’s decidedly mediocre hubby Fred (Logan Lerner) as his teaching assistant for the semester. Though Rose has her own academic aspirations, her recent pregnancy and new role as a faculty wife means she’s relegated to auditing classes when she’s not tending to Shirley’s every whim.
But just because Rose knows her way around the kitchen doesn’t mean she’s an innocent ingénue. She has a dark side that is clearly drawn to — even turned on by — Shirley’s sadistic mind games. In the film’s opening scene, we see a wide-eyed Rose deeply engrossed in “The Lottery” on the train to Bennington. She’s visibly flushed as she describes the story’s shockingly violent ending to Fred, and she barely misses a beat before dragging him into the bathroom for a little afternoon delight.
Decker has a penchant for exploring the messy, complex, and often disturbing inner lives of women: sexual and psychological tendencies that Freud might have reductively labelled “hysteria.” (Shirley suffers from episodes of anxiety and depression, which Stanley lightly refers to as “bouts.”) Decker’s first two features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, were dizzying erotic nightmares, which, like Madeline’s Madeline, used poetic visuals to express a radical female subjectivity.
“Almost all my movies are about a woman who feels stuck in an identity that she has either given herself or that has been imposed upon her — and she has to free herself from that. It was exciting to have dual protagonists in this movie. It was such a challenge to figure out how to enter the story through Rose’s eyes, but then go into Shirley’s subconscious partway through the film,” Decker says.
When Rose and Fred first arrive in Vermont, the Jackson-Hyman household is booming with a bookishly bohemian faculty party. As Shirley holds court in the living room, Stanley offers a toast: “To our suffering, my dear!” She wryly responds: “There’s not enough scotch in the world.” It all seems to be in good humor, but in the light of day, the couple proves mutually menacing and the house stiflingly claustrophobic: Seen from the outside, it’s so overgrown with ivy that even the windows seem to be gasping for air.
The only thing that gets Shirley out of bed after the party is Stanley’s permission to misbehave at dinner. She stumbles down the stairs to join her new guests and immediately taunts Rose and Fred for what she assumes must have been a shotgun wedding. No stranger to playing women on the verge, Moss throws her weight into every acerbic line, her facial expressions alternating between sinister twitches and maniacal trances. One-upping her roles in films like Queen of Earth and Her Smell, she provides the perfect foil for Young’s inward-facing torment. If Shirley is a self-proclaimed witch — replete with tarot cards — then Stanley is the devil. Stuhlbarg plays the patriarch with scene-stealing Shakespearean verve: He’s a puppet muster in corduroy who wields his power of approval over his wife at every opportunity.
While Shirley and Stanley are based on real people, Rose and Fred are completely imagined and the film does not claim historical accuracy. Freely blending fact with fantasy and horror with eroticism, it does, however, successfully translate the palpable sense of dread that defines Jackson’s writing.
“We all did a ton of research,” Decker says. “I read almost everything Shirley wrote but I never got too worried about trying to be beholden to anything besides making this a good film. I don’t think of this as a biopic, I think of it as what might happen if you took Shirley and dropped her into one of her stories.”
The movie thrusts us into the plot that Shirley is cooking up for her second novel, Hangsaman, which was inspired by the disappearance — and possible suicide — of a young Bennington student. Since the agoraphobic Shirley can’t bring herself to leave the house, she sends Rose to dig through school records and interrogate locals who might have known the lost girl. As she retreats deeper into her writing process, Shirley begins to conflate Rose with her imagined protagonist — and it becomes increasingly unclear if we’re witnessing creative genius or spiraling madness.
Decker’s directorial vision emerges most clearly in these lyrical flourishes: preppy campus girls with vacant stares pop up in eerie tableaux; Shirley reaches for the hallucinated hand of her heroine; Rose and Shirley perch precariously on the edge of a steep cliff, wind ruffling their hair, and, in a particularly dreamy shot reminiscent of Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, Rose writhes around in the dirt, cigarette in hand, contemplating what the hell she’s becoming.
“Thou Wast Mild and Lovely did have a lot of rolling around on the ground,” Decker laughs. “That scene wasn’t written into the script. We needed to see Rose a little further along [in her pregnancy] so we decided to get a real big belly on her and shoot something. We shot her a couple times planting flowers, and I was like, this is just not me. I told Odessa: just do anything, get in the dirt, be weird!”
The actress was smoking between takes and Decker instructed her to keep the cigarette as the cameras rolled — even though her character doesn’t smoke. It was an improvised moment that turned out to be a key visualization signaling Rose crossing a threshold she’ll never be able return from. (Shirley chain smokes throughout the movie.) “She’s really changing in that moment.” Decker says. “You see the influence of Shirley on her. It’s one of the things I’m proudest of.”
If Rose and Shirley are opposing archetypes — the working writer vs. the mother and wife, or “Wifey” as Rose sardonically quips about herself — the film doesn’t suggest that either is any better, happier, or saner, than the other. They’re merely two sides of the same thrillingly horrible coin.
“A question every woman asks, or, one that I ask myself all the time is: How much is the life that I’m living the life that I want, and how much of it is something I think I should want?” Decker offers. “What are the things that I’m actively desperate for that I ignore all the time? Maybe men have this experience too, but I feel like women especially experience it. One theme in the film is how to liberate one’s mind, which is not always so clear.”
Shirley, directed by Josephine Decker, is now available in virtual cinemas and on demand.