A zoomed shot on Elisabeth Moss' face. She's wearing glasses.

Shirley is a nauseating dive into the life of Shirley Jackson, which embraces the complexity of the woman at its center. Josephine Decker’s latest film explores the turbulent relationships between Jackson, her husband, and a younger couple who move into their house. Flowing between fiction and reality, it rejects the conventions of the biopic genre, and as a result, evolves into a powerful exploration of creation, obsession, and suffering.

From the opening moments of Shirley, a profound murkiness hovers over the film. The first frames are dark and disorientating as the camera searches for a focal point in the scene. When a picture finally emerges from the chaos, the camera is trapped in a moving carriage. This is a fitting metaphor for a film where nothing is ever at rest. Even as things become clearer, they are still in motion. The constant movement of the camera and the characters creates a dizzying effect, and makes the subject difficult to pin down. Though the film allows space for theories on Jackson’s psyche, they are rarely confirmed or denied. Instead, the viewer is allowed to draw conclusions in their own time. This is a fascinating experiment on the biopic form. The film sketches a mesmerizing impression of Jackson, rather than a photo-realistic portrait.  

Perhaps more than any other, the biographic genre is deeply entrenched in tradition. It would be misleading to call Shirley a breath of fresh air – as the film is a noxious, suffocating experience – but it is a refreshingly unconventional approach. The film glides past the facts of Jackson’s life. At times, they appear in a comment or reference, but they never dominate the script. The film is, in a sense, an emotional biography of Jackson, rather than a historical one. It captures the complicated and contradictory nature of her character, with the fluidity and ambiguity of a half-remembered dream. The script is not a reliably informative document and never claims to be. Instead, it is a rich and engaging psychological drama, which is jarringly ugly and hypnotizingly beautiful in equal parts.

At the center of this balance is a powerful performance from a perfectly-cast Elisabeth Moss. In the opening scenes, she is filmed with restraint; it is a performance seen through the crack in the door – shadowy, veiled and elusive. Even when the film becomes more intimate, she is never clearly in focus. The camera and screenplay are constantly moving, refusing to give the audience a simple summary of everything Shirley was. Her unpredictability is absorbed by the film, rather than being reduced into something easily digestible. A simpler performance might ground the film, but Moss’s nuanced expression instead elevates it. She flows back and forth between vile and sympathetic, never settling on one or the other. 

Elisabeth Moss holding Odessa Young's chin up, there's a forest scenery in the back
Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young in Shirley (2020)

Despite the extremes of this performance, the ensemble cast manage to hold their own with confidence. Each of the four central actors is brilliantly placed, and throughout, their performances are tightly entwined in one another. Odessa Young plays the young wife who moves into the house and becomes mutually obsessed with Jackson. Her portrayal echoes Moss’s own, skillfully capturing the relationship between the two women. As time draws on, her expression grows in intensity, as if she is being transformed by the atmosphere of the production. This evolution captures her mental deterioration and gives the film a constant sense of momentum. 

While not as eye-catching, the casting of Logan Lerman and Michael Stuhlbarg is also done with airtight precision. For one, their apparent stability complements the turbulence of the central women. Moreover, both actors play against type, as their most notable work to date has been for pleasant, accommodating characters. This is not the case in Shirley where both men are duplicitous and frequently manipulative. However, the genius of the script is in the way, it subverts these expectations. Rather than shocking the viewer with a dramatic contrast, both Lerman and Stuhlbarg play into their traditional ‘nice guy’ personas, while simultaneously manipulating their wives. As a result, their unpleasantness is more insidious and difficult to pin down, challenging any sense of stability.

Shirley is an intoxicating depiction of madness, which is both mesmerizing and painfully oppressive. The film induces a thematic and visual motion sickness, but still manages to maintain a sense of intrigue. It is a fascinating balancing act. While the central performances are crucial in this structure, the script itself allows space for them to fully express the intricacies of the characters. Shirley gambles on the hope its atmosphere will hold everything together, and is ultimately rewarded. The result is a powerful, unique exploration of Jackson herself, and is consequently the perfect testament to her life and work.

Deren is an American Culture and Literature student at Ege University. She’s tired of getting sarcastic questions about the “American Culture” part of her studies. Her comfort movies include Little Miss Sunshine, Up! and Love,Rosie. You can find her on Twitter @dereneakin and letterboxd @derenakn