The limits of femininity are excellently explored in Josephine Decker’s Shirley, a gritty chamber-piece that’s alternately playful and menacing. Using the tropes of horror to comment on the complicated relationship between writing, death, womanhood and sex, Decker has created another deeply fascinating character study.
The year is 1964 (although it feels older) and horror writer Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” has just been published in The New Yorker. It is apparently the most disgusting tale to ever appear between the esteemed publisher’s pages. Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) certainly enjoys the story: after reading it on the train, she immediately pulls her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) into the toilet for a quickie. They’re moving to an unnamed New Hampshire town for Fred’s professor position, invited to stay with Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) for a few days while looking for a place.
Despite her recent success, Shirley Jackson is in a creative rut. She hasn’t left the house in weeks, completely bereft of inspiration. The house is a mess and meals regularly go uncooked, with Stanley at his wit’s ends. But he comes up with a brilliant idea, inviting Rose and Fred to stay with them longer. They (Rose) can cook and clean the house in return for free bed and board. Rose and Fred gladly accept which, after all, means they now have direct access to two brilliant minds. What they don’t know yet is just how corroded and broken this relationship is, bringing everything else into its destructive orbit.
Rose is everything Shirley is not: youthful, preppy and about to be a mother. Rose evokes to her a missing woman, whose poster has been plastered around town; inspiring Shirley’s latest novel. But as Shirley gets deeper into her book — which would later turn into Hangsaman — her relationship with Rosie grows stranger and stranger. Rosie develops a penchant for naughtiness, flicking sandwiches off tables at posh parties, running off into the woods and believing in witchcraft.
As the great writer herself, Elisabeth Moss is typically excellent. Her Shirley is a morose, brooding figure, unable to handle herself with any proper decorum. Likewise, Michael Stuhlbarg is perfectly cast as her overbearing husband, an evil mirror twin of his loving father character in Call Me By Your Name. Holding a position of power at the university, he disguises his lechery through exuberance. Both Odessa Young and Logan Lerman play like their younger doubles; their performances subtle reflections of their elders, the playful blurring of the lines stressed by the mirrors that abound in the creaky, New Hampshire house.
The film argues that the only response to condition femininity is to become a monster. After all, the real horror is off-screen, on campus, in a world women are not allowed access to. Rose, a housewife, is expected to behave in a certain way. Shirley shows her that it doesn’t have to be like this. Women can be monstrous, witchy, strange. It’s exhilarating to see Decker explore such topics, including how horror is linked to sexual appetite, in such a daring way. No one else is making films quite like this.
The camerawork is a flurry of handheld shots, soft focus and intense close ups, constantly moving to express the restlessness of its characters. Nonetheless, there are more conventional features here than in Decker’s previous features. For example, she uses establishing shots more often, and builds up scenes in a slightly more traditional way. Additionally, while her character’s dramas previously felt like they sprang from the form itself, Shirley is more of a conventional actors piece: using recognisable horror tropes as a springboard for theatrics.
Decker’s style, more restrained than the manic Madeline’s Madeline, has been standardised, more accessible. The horror-adjacent nature of the film makes her characteristic tonal jumps feel more digestible. This is not necessarily a bad thing, hopefully opening her work up to even wider audiences. With none other than Martin Scorsese listed as an executive producer, one can expect Shirley to be a success.