Elisabeth Moss is the rare actress who has made remarkable work in both television (“Mad Men,” “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Top of the Lake”) and film (Her Smell, Us, The Invisible Man), and her latest role as mid-century author Shirley Jackson (known for her dark social commentary and subject matters) is no exception. Shirley (directed by Josephine Decker, written by Sarah Gubbins and based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell) is a haunting, unblinking portrait of a woman navigating a world she isn’t quite made for, a woman at once fiercely independent and tied down, sharply observant and unstable. Moss’s performance is kinetic, made all the more so through Gubbin’s biting dialogue and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s creative camera work.
Though ostensibly a biopic about a particular period in Jackson’s life, the film is an adaptation of Merrell’s novel where a fictional young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young, respectively), arrive on the campus of Bennington College (where husband Stanley Hyman was a professor) and are invited to board at the Jackson-Hyman home. It’s 1964 and Fred, fresh off completing his doctorate, and Rose, newly pregnant (though even Fred doesn’t know yet) first meet Shirley and Stanley (portrayed with the quiet ferocity only Michael Stuhlbarg can muster) in their festive best. Their home is bustling with a party populated by academics, intellectuals and fans of Shirley’s, who has just published the cautionary short story “The Lottery.” Holding court in the old house’s sitting room, Moss is instantly captivating as a woman with a sharp eye and a way with words.
Through a bit of charm (and perhaps a skotch of manipulation), Stanley convinces the Namsers to move in with them, room and board in exchange for household chores and keeping an eye on Shirley, who is in the midst of writing her next novel about the disappearance of a young woman last seen on campus. Prone to periods of disabling depression, Shirley sometimes struggles to get out of bed or come down for dinner. With their husbands off to their classrooms, Rose and Shirley have the house to themselves, where the former gets a firsthand glimpse of the latter’s writing process. From researching whatever subject at hand in her vast personal library to sitting motionless, lost in thought, Shirley’s process is entirely her own, and soon Rose is a part of it.
The two could not be more different from each other, and they bond in unexpected ways. Rose is the picture of traditional mid-century wifehood; she’s staying home (and pausing her own education and future) while she awaits the baby. She cooks and cleans and sees to Fred (and Stanley’s) household needs—laundry, lunches, etc. Shirley is in a trickier position, mired by the same marital expectations yet uninterested in or unwilling to perform most of it. With her work quickly surpassing her husband’s, she’s earning income and gaining a reputation. But she’s still anchored to the restrictive expectations of her role as wife—that is to say, Stanley still wears the pants in the family. Watching these two women interact is like watching a science experiment, each exploring and discovering things out themselves and each other through the arc of their friendship.
Though the Nemsers, Stanley and a few other key players build out Shirley‘s world, this film is unequivocally Moss’s, and she inhabits the role as if a storm is brewing inside her just waiting for the right moment to burst out. Instead, it emerges in piercing retorts that put their intended targets squarely in their place, or in quiet outbursts of misbehavior that force reactions out of those witnessing them. She’s a woman in complete control of being out of control, and she knows it. Nothing about Shirley is romantic (Tamar-kali’s score is dissonant, disjointed and downright spooky, even during sex scenes), and yet you’ll find yourself drawn to these two couples and their version of fiery domesticity.
By the film’s third act, the relationship between this odd foursome comes to a crossroads; both Fred and Rose have changed drastically since they moved into the Jackson-Hyman home, and not entirely for the better. A keen eye to it all, Shirley knows exactly when and how to drop bombshells with quiet efficiency, By the time the credits roll, questions still linger about the time these four spent together, chief among them, why? Why would a young couple subject themselves to Shirley and Stanley’s brand of crazy? Why would Rose become so fascinated with Shirley’s world, and vice versa? The answers, of course, are up for interpretation; the combination of Decker’s enthralling filmmaking and Moss’s riveting performance make it a wonder to explore them.
Shirley is now streaming on Hulu and through select virtual cinemas.