Sundance 2020: “Shirley” Is a Gothic Drama About the Horror of Marriage

Sundance Shirley

Shirley Jackson’s story is brought to sumptuous Gothic life thanks to Josephine Decker and a typically-great Elisabeth Moss performance.

If you caught Elisabeth Moss in Her Smell last year, you saw an unhinged performance, one bursting with rage, drug-induced confusion, and lots of screaming. Her role as a rockstar in flux should have garnered her more awards attention, but the film underperformed at the box office regardless of (mostly) critical acclaim. Director Josephine Decker’s new film should give Moss another chance at an Oscar nomination, portraying horror writer Shirley Jackson in Shirley

Though the logline and summary indicate a biopic, Shirley ends up being much closer to a drama with tinges of horror laced throughout its 107-minute runtime. Based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell with a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, Shirley follows the writer and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as they take a young couple into their uncleanly home, professor-in-training Fred (Logan Lerman) and pregnant Rose (Odessa Young). With the men spending the majority of their time at the local university, Shirley and Rose begin growing closer, as the former struggles to write her next novel. 

As much about writing as it is about marriage, Decker’s film explores these interconnecting relationships with ease, creating tension when there is none, and pointing out frustration when it’s plain as day to see. Shirley rarely leaves the house, and enlists Rose as housekeeper-turned-apprentice, as the author starts writing a novel about a local, missing college girl. 

Moss carries this film with impressive authority, giving a very different but equally fantastic performance than that of a rockstar in Her Smell. So much of Shirley’s emotions — both joys and frustrations — stay bottled up, and Moss lets them out sneakily with her singularly expressive face. It’s a subtle role with major implications, and she constantly drives the film forward. In every scene, your eyes hardly wander from her, always demanding your attention with her silence. 

Stuhlbarg doesn’t lag far behind, showing that he still has the magic a decade removed from A Serious Man. Obsessed with perfection and hating mediocrity, Stuhlbarg’s Stanley ends up being the perfect match for Shirley, regardless of his plain-in-sight indiscretion. Giving one of the best line deliveries at the Sundance Film Festival, Stuhlbarg remarks while talking about Fred’s dissertation, “It was terrifically competent. There’s no use for that.” Talk about a mic drop.

As the film continues, Shirley becomes more engrossed with the missing girl, with her novel, and with Rose, who becomes a muse of hers. Fred spends more time at university, at the “Shakespeare Club” with Stanley, getting drunk while the women stay around the house. The film excels when it’s looking at marital relationships and the constant power struggle within this home. Shirley and Stanley spend their days in constant degradation and secrets, pushing each other to be better, be smarter, and be more successful, despite the need to sometimes spend all day in bed. 

The conversation regarding the gender roles in the household simmers above the film, as Decker crafts a slowly eroding relationship in Fred and Rose, while studying the individual confidence and motives of their parental figures. Elisabeth Moss drives Shirley to incredible places, with Michael Stuhlbarg and the rest of the supporting cast picking up the slack anytime Moss happens to be offscreen. And don’t forget Decker’s hypnotic, surrealist direction (same as she brought to 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline), opting for the dreamlike in just enough places to emphasize the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-iness of it all. Shirley isn’t your regular biopic. It’s much, much more than that.

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