After the wild, impressionistic, entirely original ride that was Josephine Decker’s last film, Madeline’s Madeline, it came as something of a surprise that her follow up would be adapting a based-on-a-true-story novel, working from someone else’s script. Thankfully, though Shirley is certainly more conventional than Madeline, Decker has hardly gone in for a conventional biopic, instead diving deep into the inscrutable madness that is creativity while working in elements of gothic mystery and sexual awakening.
Decker first introduces us to Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) through her writing, as the raw power of her controversially violent short story ‘The Lottery’ provokes a young couple into spontaneous sex in the toilets of the train they’re on. As it transpires, this couple – Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) – are coming to stay with Shirley and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) while Fred assists Stanley in his job as a lecturer at an all-girls college. If a young academic coming to stay at Michael Stuhlbarg’s house sounds familiar, though, don’t assume you know where Shirley is going. This is worlds away from the sun-kissed optimism of Call Me By Your Name, playing more as a dark fantasy with morbid fascinations at its heart.
Moss and Stuhlbarg settle into this tone with gusto, bearing strong resemblances to a witch and an ogre, respectively, luring young prey into a house in the woods. Moss is truly superb, making what could be a caricature into a frighteningly real person. She has to deal with a broad accent and Shirley’s many physical and mental ailments, but never forces a ‘showy’ performance, fitting in perfectly with the world that Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins create. They peel back the layers of Shirley as Rose gets to know her better and comes to eventually inspire her to write her iconic second novel Hangsaman.
Whenever Shirley gets a new, irresistible idea for the novel, we rush swiftly and intrusively into her head, seeing her fictional worlds as she perceives them. It’s a stylish and disorienting look at the creative process that is sometimes overbearing, but ultimately refreshing, given how many artist biopics fail to really capture their subjects’ urge to create. Even when she’s not writing, Shirley’s perspective shapes the world, waves of oppressive sound crashing down in moments of high emotion, whether that’s the noise of a thousand insects during an escape into the woods, or the loud cracks and creaks of the walls when Rose and Fred first arrive, as if the house itself detects intruders.
It’s through Shirley’s unique ideas that both Rose and the film itself is able to escape the period trappings of the early ‘50s in which it is set. Rose gets to imagine a life outside of being a dutiful housewife, and though the costumes are period-accurate (not to mention the various shots of pregnant women drinking and smoking) there’s a bluntness and honesty to the dialogue that feels very forward-thinking. It’s as if Decker has created an alternate history of the ‘50s, albeit one restricted to a single household, and it’s an absolutely fascinating world to visit.