Shirley Review – A Film Made of Tremendously Seductive Dreams and Nightmares

With Shirley, director Josephine Decker has created a film that is not in any way a literal or traditional biographic rendering of the novelist Shirley Jackson. Instead, it works by layering sets of metaphors that exist within the fictional world that Jackson created, as well as the milieu that she inhabited as an eccentric brilliant woman living in a period where she was also expected to be imminently capable as a housewife, hostess, mother and accessory to her close-knit college community town in Vermont where her husband Stanley Hyman teaches at Bennington College.

The first thing the audience must abandon when coming into the film is that it will tell you anything about Jackson you can rely on as fact. Much of what Decker is communicating comes from a fictional space that explores with alacrity what it could have been like for Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and the equally important, yet completely fictional character, Rose (Odessa Young). 

In a set up that is somewhat reminiscent of Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Jackson’s anomic yet somewhat charming professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites a young couple Rose and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) to the house for dinner, and what eventually becomes a live in situation where Rose “cares” for Jackson as she writes her second novel Hangsaman. The relationship between Hyman and Jackson has become so embittered and strained that they delight in harming each other, but also open their aggression on to the inhabitants of the college community. A fierce battle of will is set up between four characters with the neuroses of each being consistently exploited by the others.

To put the film into context, some explanation of who Shirley Jackson was is in order. Jackson was one of the foremost American writers of horror and psychological fiction of the twentieth century. Most people know her via her two most famous pieces; the short story The Lottery which was so controversial that when it was published in the June 26, 1948 issue of The New Yorker it was widely condemned by the readership with Jackson recounting that over three hundred letters were written that ranged from consternation to outrage with readers threatening to cancel their subscription to the magazine. The story was about a small town in middle America where each year a person was chosen to be stoned by the inhabitants of the town to ensure a good harvest for the upcoming year. It was a masterstroke in exposing the underbelly of what seemed to be the most bucolic of towns and the hypocrisy, superstition and small mindedness of those who lived there. The story has been adapted for film, radio, ballet and theatre. 

Jackson’s best-known long form work is the gothic supernatural novel The Haunting of Hill House that has been adapted so many times that merely making a list would push this review into the realm of thousands of words. Most recently, and arguably by critics the most successful adaptation was Mike Flannagan’s (Doctor Sleep) Netflix series which veered so far from the original text that it would be best described as being “inspired by” the book.

Despite these two pieces above being her most well-known, she wrote six novels, two memoirs and approximately one hundred short stories before her premature death at the age of forty-eight. All of this she did whilst battling chronic illness, depression, and raising four children. 

A straightforward biographical film of Jackson’s life would be an immense undertaking. What Decker decided to do was instead take the spirit of Jackson as displayed in the psychological aspect of her novel and add it to some facts about her life. However, Decker wisely does not adhere too closely to any single aspect of Jackson’s life. For example, although her marriage is explored, there is no sign of any of her children. Also the timeline doesn’t exactly match the physicality of Jackson that Moss inhabits. At the time of writing Hangsaman, Jackson would have been approximately thirty-four, yet Moss plays her as a woman who is almost a decade older. 

Feeding into the fantasy of the narrative is the young Rose. Odessa Young plays a dual role as both Rose and the inspiration for the novel Hangsaman, a young college student named Paula Jean Welden. Welden went out for a long walk one day from her college classes and never returned. The case remained unsolved but formed a point of fascination for Jackson whose character Natalie Waite (the stand-in for Welden) becomes a fourth feminine presence in the filmic text. 

The question of women’s madness is central to the film. As Rose and her ambitious young academic husband Fred take up residence in the Jackson/Hyman household both Shirley and Rose’s sanity is considered questionable by the men who surround them and by the text. Hyman delights in gaslighting his wife, yet also insists that she make herself well and presentable to the outside world. He tries to exert an authorial control over Jackson’s writing, and this makes the vulnerable Rose fall heavily into Jackson’s paranoid world filled with rage and esoteric magic. Added to the stresses of living in the household is the fact that Fred has easily fallen into the habit of sleeping with young women in his classes. Hyman was famously polyamorous, and the film shows his choice to be one that damaged Jackson’s psyche to the point she became a heavy drinker and lived in a world that was shrunk into anger and mental illness, as well as physical illness.

Rose (although fictional) acts as a locus for the film’s central premise; young women who are filled with intellectual promise and their own strength of character are worn down by social and patriarchal expectations leading them to eventually do the only sane thing, which is to go mad. Much of the point of view in the film when it involves Rose and Shirley exists in a dream like state. It is never clear if something is happening or it is wish fulfilment or obsessional thinking that is driving the scenes. Promising young women are obliterated by the men that surround them.

It would be simplistic to place all the blame for Jackson and Rose Nemser’s problems solely on the patriarchal strictures in which they lived. Jackson herself chose to remain with Hyman, regardless of his cavalier treatment of her. In a later scene in the film as Rose and Fred finally leave the house where Rose has essentially become Shirley’s servant and has suffered mentally to the point of going mad, Shirley and Stanley dance together as if they haven’t a care in the world. The film reveals itself to be a series of cruel games played by careless people and the final victims are those who aren’t prepared for the emotional toll involved.

Odessa Young (The Daughter) is shaping up to be one of Australia’s finest acting exports. In what is essentially a piece that rests on four performances, Young’s work is more than equal against the more seasoned Moss. The tension between the two characters is palpable. In the scenes with Fred where we learn that Rose, like Shirley is with Stanley, is at the very least his intellectual equal she is a powerhouse of frustration and simmering resentment. She goes from partner to mad witch under Jackson’s tutelage in what seems to be the space of about a year. Whilst the men in the house carouse at faculty parties, Rose becomes Jackson’s secretary as well as investigator, daughter, possible lover and eventually the mother of her own child. She learns to lie to try to keep Jackson’s interest. When she realises that no-one is really going to give her the attention her young and clever mind deserves, her descent into madness is subtle and effective.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman is by turns charming and repulsive. Nyman was considered a critic of great note during his life, and although many believe his relationship with Jackson was one of the reasons she became increasingly paranoid and ill, he has also been credited with helping to place Jackson’s work in the public eye. As a character in the film there seems to be little to redeem him. He bullies and cajoles in a manner that seems mercurial to all the members of his household. Whether it’s forcing Shirley to get out of bed and sit at a table, or trying to seduce Rose, or finally belittling Fred for being merely adequate, not brilliant – Stuhlbarg’s Hyman is electric. 

Elisabeth Moss is, simply put, one of the most talented actors of our generation. Her Jackson is by turns pure spite and then filled with a need for warmth and comfort. Decker directs Moss with a deft hand that manages through a set of sometimes dreamlike scenarios to create a solid personality behind Shirley. Remembering that the film is fictional and not trying to be a perfect representation of Jackson’s life doesn’t take away from the solid characterisation that Moss bestows. There are moments when the venom that pours from Shirley is vituperatively riveting and those moments are made more so effective when they are contrasted by her immense need to be cared for, loved and mothering in her own way.

Shirley is a skeleton piece in that it has the bones of many types of films and builds its flesh upon them. It is part biography, part mystery, part meditation on misogyny in middle twentieth century America. It is also a kind of love story between people who aren’t able to express love in ways that are normalised in the society they live in. The camera creates a liminal dream space that reflects the inner lives of the female protagonists, whilst also creating the sense that the film is a part of the real world and that women and men indeed lived these lives. Although it may not be exactly the life Shirley Jackson lived, it is enough of her life to have a direct verisimilitude for her and for the numerous Roses, Paulas and Natalies. The film is mesmerising and riveting and that is a kind of mirror on the author who was both of those things, and so much more. Hopefully in coming out of the film the audience is inspired to track down Jackson’s work. However, as a stand-alone piece it works regardless of what you know of the writer. Decker’s film is made of dreams and nightmares and is tremendously seductive. I guarantee you will be spellbound.  

Director: Josephine Decker

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg

Writer: Sarah Gubbins, (based on the novel Shirley by Susan Scarf Merrell)

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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