Shirley (Movie Review)

Executive Producer Martin Scorsese presents a hypnotic Thriller centered around one of America’s greatest Horror writers: the aptly-titled Shirley arrives on Hulu and VOD, as well as to virtual cinemas and participating drive-ins, on Friday, June 5, 2020, thanks to Neon.

Toeing the line between fact and fiction, this darkly sensual tale begins with a party in Vermont, at the home of Bennington College professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg: Boardwalk Empire series, The Shape of Water 2017), and his wife, infamous wordsmith Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss: Girl, Interrupted 1991, The Handmaid’s Tale series). The celebration coincides with the arrival of the boisterous educator’s new assistant, Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman: The Perks of Being a Wallflower 2012, Hunters series), and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young: Assassination Nation 2018, The Stand series), who will be spending several weeks with the unconventional couple as they get their feet planted in town.

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Soon the young couple realize they are in for quite a challenging stay when they witness just how tempestuous the Hyman-Jackson marriage can be. Shirley spends the bulk of her days in bed or in her negligee, smoking cigarettes and working on her new novel. Meanwhile, gregarious Stanley is a blustering whirlwind of personality, who also happens to be a shameless philanderer. Evading their own cloud of secrets, the pair only seem to agree when it comes to condescension, tossing sniveling remarks at their so-called guests.

Time heals some wounds, however, as Shirley slowly begins to build a relationship with doting Rose. And when she tumbles into the mania of crafting her new novel, Hangsaman, the author enlists her houseguest as an accomplice in solving the mysterious disappearance of a local college girl—the true crime that has inspired her recent literary exploits. But what darkly hidden secrets will their hunt dredge up?

Clocking in at 107 minutes and Rated R, Shirley was directed by Josephine Decker (Thou Wast Mild and Lovely 2014, Madeline’s Madeline 2018) with a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick series, Better Things series), based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. The film also features the acting talents of Adelind Horan (The Deuce 2018, Wanderland 2018), Steve Vinovich (Godfather of Harlem series, Worth 2020), Molly Fahey (Grand Theft Auto V video game 2013, Missed Connections series), and many more.

It’s easy to see how the lush and sensual Shirley won the Special Jury Prize in Auteur Filmmaking at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. A genre-fluid blend of the Thriller, Drama, and, to a lesser extent, True Crime and Historical Fiction, the film takes legitimate facts from the famous author’s life and bends them to create a moody narrative worthy of its namesake.

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As we already know, Jackson, the real woman behind the story, authored six novels—including 1951’s Hangsaman and 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House—as well as two memoirs and “The Lottery,” among some other 200 short stories. Known to have suffered from severe anxiety along with agoraphobia and, thus, becoming reclusive in her later years, Jackson was married to Hyman in real-life, though, unlike in the film, the pair had four children together. Shirley, the film, hints at many of these aspects of the celebrated writer’s actual life—including Jackson’s mental health issues and her open marriage—but only fans are apt to pick up on these Easter eggs, if we can call them such.

Setting aside the intricacies of our screenplay’s fact versus fiction, the film presents its narrative in visual splendor thanks to the suitably moody cinematography of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (Victoria 2015, The Discovery 2017). Coupled with a wonderfully diverse score by Tamar-kali (Mudbound 2017, The Last Thing He Wanted 2020) that encapsulates the film’s shifting emotions, and simple but flawless costume design by Amela Baksic (The First Purge 2018, Dare Me series), it’s hard to find fault in this passionately wrought composition.

Riding these successes, a magnificent cast come together to detail the explosive nuance of Shirley. In the titular role, Moss is brilliant as the tormented tormentor. Losing herself in the character, she becomes an eerie doppelgänger for the author, a complicated woman who was often trapped inside the cage of her own mind. A “horrifically talented” wordsmith in real-life, Moss’ Shirley steps away from her manuscript to instigate trouble, toss out condescending commentary, as well as to consistently push those around her away. In other, rarer moments, she professes self-doubt in her talents, jokes that she’s a witch, and confesses an awareness that the town’s people are afraid of her and her dark thoughts. Throughout all of this, Moss keeps her viewers guessing as to which of the juxtaposed personalities is closer to the real deal; creating a well-rounded character who is both a hero and a villain in this lottery called life.

Starring alongside Moss, Young never once fumbles to keep up. Her Rose is an equally multi-faceted and strong woman, one who is able to chip through the stony exterior of her idol and open a new chapter in Shirley’s life. Throughout, Young’s performance is exceptional as she challenges the idea of what an ‘unconventional’ and ‘intelligent’ woman looks like. Certainly “the world is too cruel to girls,” but Young’s Rose is consistently able to use her failures as fuel for inner-fire. In this, she provides an element of the coming-of-age tale, one that mirrors the Bildungsroman Hangsaman.

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And while this is a film about its female characters, Lerman and Stuhlbarg hold their own alongside the ladies. Receiving the least screen time, Lerman presents an initially likable young assistant professor seeking tenure at a prestigious institution. His Fred is not the most rounded of the lot, but Lerman portrays him with a zest. It is Stuhlbarg, however, who is divine, going heels over ankles as Professor Hyman. Whether offering smarmy adages such as “a clean house is evidence of mental inferiority,” or wooing the ladies right beneath his wife’s nose, the professor is a bold personality, meant to ruffle feathers, and Stuhlbarg embraces the vile with vigor. He is rottenly cordial at all times, much too friendly with his female guests; thanks to Stuhlbarg’s all-in approach, Hyman is a man who is somehow easy and yet hard to loathe.

When all of these often contradictory elements are combined, you have a film that, much like Jackson’s writing, toys with your emotions as it offers thrills and dramatic exploits. But unlike the recent pseudo-biopic of Emily Dickinson—2019’s Wild Nights with Emily—which was a colorful and witty love story, this is the dark and complicated mystery of three lost women—and not everyone can be found. For this, Cryptic Rock gives Shirley 5 of 5 stars.


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