Josephine Decker’s new film Shirley is a perfect commingling of all the themes and aesthetics she’s been working on over the years. The film is more attuned to the mood of Shirley Jackson’s literature than any recent adaptation of her work, despite stretching (and often outright ignoring) the truth for the sake of a multitude of metaphors.
Though ostensibly about the writing of Hangsaman, Decker has little to no interest in creating a biopic; it’s telling a story in the author’s voice, projecting an image of the Jackson and her characters onto a fresh-faced young woman and her husband coming into the author’s life and shaking things up. If anything, the film improves on something that Marielle Heller already did last year with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: toying with conflicting forces and identities and how they influence each other, between a famous figure and our relatively lesser-known (or, in this case, outright fictional) protagonist.
Plenty has been said about Moss’ stellar work here—and to be sure it’s marvelous to see the way she inhabits a character like this, down to the minute choices like taking a sensible bite of mashed potatoes while eating straight from the bowl it’s being served on—so I’ll focus on Odessa Young for a moment, whose film this really is (though I must note Michael Stuhlbarg’s sour charm here is his best work since A Serious Man).
Young is one of the most exciting young actresses around, and her chemistry is wonderful with every actor she engages with. Her energy constantly shifts depending on her scene partner, defining these relationships uniquely each time. This goes for her work in this, Assassination Nation, and a stage play she was in called The Mother. The latter role, where she worked with Isabelle Huppert, served as ideal prep for her role in Shirley, with the way she mirrors and becomes one with an actress of great caliber.
It’s easy to cite Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as inspiration for the machinations of Shirley, but it also taps into my favorite genre of cinema that I’ll simply refer to as “Persona-esque” (as insufferable as that sounds). It’s deeply linked to the way Jackson as a writer explores identity and projection in many of her shorts, and the way both she and Decker both challenge and play with a number of themes that Jackson wrote about (gender roles, familial bonds, human nature, cruelty, etc) is riveting.
The film feels like a direct result of what Decker has been exploring in the past, a true culmination of a short but already stunning career. The performative nature of relationships that exists in Flames, the latent eroticism and explosive energy of many beats from both Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, the creative push-and-pull and almost predatory nature of academic and artistic partnerships from Madeline’s Madeline, and the dreaminess of Collective: Unconscious’ “First Day Out” sequence (or, really, the dreaminess of her entire career as a filmmaker). Shirley may be a bitter pill to swallow for many, but I adored it from head to toe, its acidity and humor burning a hole in my weary heart.
Directed by Josephine Decker; written by Sarah Gubbins; adapted from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell; starring Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Logan Lerman; 107 minutes.
Shirley is available on demand, in virtual cinemas everywhere, and on Hulu.