Director Josephine Decker’s feature debut Madeline’s Madeline (2018), a tale centered on a young woman whose grip with reality slowly weakens as she finds her imagination being made real, continues to entrap my mind. The film itself is an experimental exploration of identity and madness that served as a wonderful training ground for Decker’s follow-up: the deceptively cutting Shirley. Decker inserts the audience into a perspective they must be ready to see in a not-so-biographical film about the famous American Gothic writer Shirley Jackson (The Lottery/The Haunting of Hill House) and her academic husband Stanley Hyman. It’s not just a strange chemical-based madness that plagues Jackson, the film asserts, but a social-based one, a cultural chain that keeps her tethered. Unable to escape, Jackson seeks the high that creation brings as she cycles through one toxic choice after another.
Set after the release of The Lottery, Shirley follows newlyweds Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman) as they arrive at the Hyman-Jackson residence upon the invitation of Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rose and Fred understood the request to stay to be temporary as Fred assists Stanley in the classroom, hoping to find their own place quickly, but, with a little insistence from Stanley, the two reluctantly put their plans to depart on hold. Their housekeeper is gone and Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), Stanley says, needs help keeping the house in order, which, he implies, Rose can do while the men are gone. Willing to play the role of caretaker, Rose begins to look after the cantankerous Shirley who’s struggling with a fit of depression as she tries to crack her latest idea: a novel inspired by a local missing girl.
Decker and director of photography Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Wendy) instill a natural unease, a seeping anxiety, into Shirley by way of divine and often disorienting direction and cinematography, placing either an obstruction between character and camera, using mirrors, or utilizing a visible aura. The obstacle comes to symbolize a distance forming between the characters, whereas the mirrors present in near every scene convey the sense that what we’re seeing isn’t quite what things are. In both cases, it indicates a separation. For the mirrors, this is signaled by the reflections. They either take up the majority of the scene with the actual person just out of focus, encouraging the audience to look where it’s clearest, or it’s off to the side. In either case, it subconsciously pushes the audience to consider the limitations of perception, that what we see is not the person, but a representation of them. The characters in the film, for instance, only put onto Jackson what they think of her: a genius (Stanley), a cantankerous landlady (Fred), and a lonely women (Rose). Were they to look deeper, they might actually understand Jackson’s behavior as illness or chemical imbalance. Instead, they each try to motivate her to get back to work, as if productivity is the only measure of a person. If it’s not the mirrors, then it’s the haze inciting confusion. This isn’t like the use of forced grain in Judy & Punch, employed to suggest the wear and tear of celluloid, but a means of conveying Jackson’s, and soon Rose’s, decaying grip on what’s what. It starts with Jackson as she struggles to understand the story she’s writing, seeing the missing girl as Rose herself, before objects around her transform so that her room is a forest upon which she watches Rose-as-the-girl walk the trailhead to her unknown fate. Impressively, these are not just stylistic notes meant to disarm or entrance the audience. The almost fable-like feel is also used to introduce other notions and ideals into the film. For instance, in one scene, Rose observes several female students playing on a tree in an outside common area. Their movements are specific, as though engaged in a choreographed dance. One way to look at it is merely girls having fun, but there’s another way: these girls are sirens. They are calling to Rose to join them. She is, after all, a college student who recently dropped out to move with her husband, we learn. The sirens also calling to potential suitors. The script from Sarah Gubbins makes it plain, via several discussions and subtext, that a woman’s worth is only as good as what she can offer a man, grouping the women that appear in the film into four types: the young and desirable, young and plain, the married and fertile, the married and old. It’s in this last bit where the true terror comes to life within Shirley.
There is a cruelty in this world; one we’ve come to accept after a millennia of social conditioning. We see it now as women once more give up on their own needs in order to take care of others, while men do visibly less. For some reason, women are always expected to do more, be more, while simultaneously being viewed as incapable for doing what men do. That women are, by and large, what value men place upon them. That women of any age, in any time, of any potential might or power are still subject to the same appalling social belief: women deserve less. This is one of several elements Decker explores subtextually in Shirley, a film which lures you in via Jackson’s reputation of caustic wit and the temptation to look behind the curtain at her writing process. Except Shirley is really only truth in name and location as everything else springs forth from the mind of Susan Scarf Merrell, the author from whom Gubbins adapted the script for Decker. The film itself is a mixture of fiction and reality swirled together to create a visual fever dream, but make no mistake, it will feel all too real. Decker accomplishes this in a myriad of ways, but the first is using the agreed upon social contact, one which surely needs a rewrite or reconceptualization, as a never-ending catalyst. Jackson doesn’t see herself as weakened or stalling, despite the story being set during a bout of agoraphobia, the first of many ailments that leave the house in disarray. Stanley, however, does, so taking on a teacher’s assistant that comes with a wife is, to Stanley, a means of getting them in-house assistance to make both their lives easier. Except this is a decision he makes without discussing it with Jackson or the newlyweds and, in fact, leaves it to the day of arrival to spring it on all the parties. Fred sees Stanley as a mentor/way in to academia, so he goes along, and Rose is reticent but agreeable, setting up a relationship wherein the power structure in the house is Stanley, Jackson, Fred, and Rose. Experience is largely the factor in the hierarchy, except Jackson and Rose are really equals under the eyes of the men, with Jackson being only slightly superior due to her accolades. Moss and Stulhberg are absorbing in their roles individually, but put them in a scene together and what they have is electric, making the clearly toxic relationship of Jackson and Stanley something which is undoubtedly vexing. She with her barbed tongue and him with his constant need to dominate, they are a pair made for each other, each requiring a partner capable of keeping up, yet they are unable to divorce themselves from an obviously corrosive marriage. It’s all about power between the two of them, as they play the game society has created for them, all while Fred and Rose get caught up in it.
In many respects, what plays out in front of the audience is a game with the players represented by actors firing on all cylinders. Having already given a career highlight performance in The Invisible Man earlier in 2020, Moss outdoes herself as Jackson, utterly disappearing into the role while simultaneously absolutely coming alive. Moss makes it so every glance, every subtle gesture, contains multitudes that only the observant will recognize and understand. The characters around her only see Jackson for what they think she is, whereas the audience is invited into Jackson’s psyche, so much so that one sequence, a wordless performance from Moss, is imbued with incredible tension as the camera holds on Moss’s face as she searches the air for hints of sound, the tension in waiting growing more and more unbearable. Through Decker’s direction, the focus remains on Moss in this scene, and it takes a moment to recognize that Stanley is in the background over her right shoulder. Decker doesn’t tell the audience what’s happening, but has us figure it out on our own so that the myriad of emotions that pass over Moss’s face — terror, elation, smothered rage — all become understandable. This scene is but one of many in which Moss dominates the audience’s attention. As a scene partner, there are few better than Stulhberg. He’s incredibly good at playing assholes (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) and supportive, loving fathers (Call Me by Your Name) and, here, he confidently embodies the epitome of the self-serving male. Charming, brilliant, and in desperate need to feel in control all the time. Stulhberg’s chemistry with Moss is top notch, making any work they do together palatable with crackling energy. A not so insignificant thing as there must be some kind of passion between them in order to make any kind of sense of why the characters would stay together. As the story is only partially based in truth, the audience can only surmise what is real, but this duo grounds their fury, their respect, and their unwillingness to separate. As the other central couple, Young and Lerman are fantastic. Young confidently slips between demure wife and sexual being with ease, presenting the complexity in social roles of the era, while also making the journey of self-discovery and actualization thrilling and heartbreaking. Young is at her best opposite Moss and every scene brings with it new challenges, new thrills, and walloping discoveries. Lerman, not a slouch by any means, is given the least of the quartet and he does the most with it. As explained above, Decker and Grøvlen evoke within Shirley a sense of exploration of identity and social roles by having the audience consider what we see and through what lens we see it. Lerman as Fred, therefore, remains ever the same throughout, stalwartly so, and this is what makes his performance so deeply troubling.
With every new project, a director is judged against their prior works. It’s not right, but it happens. Madeline’s Madeline is a bold statement from a director with a vision and Decker’s Shirley confirms that the director will continue to push boundaries with each new film. Shirley is more than a refinement of technique as the score Tamar-kali (The Assistant) utilizes many of the same vocal intonations and chanting within the atmospheric music that was present in Madeline. Shirley is more than a continuance of an exploration into madness as the cause of Jackson’s are more than internal, they’re also the cruelty coming from socially accepted behaviors and philosophies. What Decker’s devised is a film so gorgeously entrancing, so perversely charming, so wistfully allegorical that it bewitches. Once ensnared, it won’t let you go.
Available on VOD June 5th, 2020.
To find a virtual cinema screening Shirley, check the official NEON website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.