Long gone are the days of the traditional biopic, following the artist from childhood through to their success and beyond, and the subgenre has improved considerably as a result. Yet, there aren’t many that feel as obscure and exciting as Josephine Decker’s new film Shirley. That said, it isn't really a biographical account, working more as bio-fiction and taking inspiration from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, which uses an imagined version of real-life horror writer Shirley Jackson (author of The Haunting of Hill House) to analyse her creative mind.
It also helps when you have Elisabeth Moss at the centre of your film. She’s an actress that has been at the top of her game for some time now, only missing the wider recognition her consistently great performances deserve. Playing troubled characters is nothing new for Moss and here she takes on the mantle of a depressive writer locked in a toxic marriage with her gaslighting professor husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), while struggling to get a handle on her next novel. The arrival of a young couple into their household unwittingly offers the inspiration she is looking for, although her influence over their lives has a far stronger effect.
Merrell’s book is the perfect source material for Decker, who is no stranger to blurring the rules of reality and fiction. What is for certain is this takes place in the ‘50s, set mostly inside a Gothic, ivy-covered house that creates the backdrop for the macabre and ambiguous tone that follows. Stanley welcomes his new academic assistant Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and wife Rose (a brilliant Odessa Young) into their home, telling them they can stay while becoming accustomed to local life. But his real aim is to use Rose as a crutch to take care of Shirley, whose agoraphobia and reliance on alcohol and prescription pills often leaves her spending hours in bed recovering.
While Fred and Rose aren’t completely oblivious to Stanley’s true intentions, they are also young and naïve enough to be sucked into the older couple’s tangled domestic web. Decker’s direction works much in the same way, slowly casting a spell that draws you into the complex relationships developing within the household. Where Shirley at first looks down at Rose as little more than someone to toy with emotionally, the two gradually become closer, with the younger woman turning into a muse of sorts. Shirley’s horror-filled imagination becomes peppered with fictionalised images of Rose, which she uses to incorporate into the story of a local missing girl to form the basis of her text.
Rose suggests that the girl who went missing – and now long presumed dead – did so in a last ditch attempt to be become visible to those around her. That feminist ideal sits at the core of the film, seen through the dynamic of two women born in an age that demands they sacrifice autonomy through marriage. When we first meet Rose we learn she is in the early stages of pregnancy, something Shirley is immediately able to sense before Rose has barely introduced herself. “Let’s pray for a boy,” Shirley says when Rose is close to giving birth, “The world is too cruel for girls.”
But Shirley isn’t portrayed as a victim, with Moss projecting the writer’s inner demons onto anyone stepping within range. The sharpness of her tongue is more than a match for the words that flow through her hands and she almost seems to revel in the challenge of duelling with her husband on a daily basis. Stanley positions himself as some sort of academic arbiter, his job informing his male arrogance and scathing criticism of anyone putting pen to paper. They can both be seen as twisted versions of the people Rose and Fred could be come 20 years down the line: Rose forced to play the secondary role at home, while Fred abuses the freedom that comes with being a man in a position of power.
The unconventionality of Shirley is what gives it real intoxicating power, bewitching the viewer into the psyche of two women seeking psychological liberation. It has more of a formal focus than some of Decker’s previous work, which it definitely benefits from, and combines well with the immersive use of camera that has characterised many of her films (handled by DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, who worked on ‘single take’ film Victoria). Along with the crashing pianos and chilling strings of Tamar-kali’s score, and the narrative's pulsating eroticism, Shirley adds to the mystery of Jackson's life rather than unravelling it, making it all the more beguiling in the process.
Shirley is available on VOD from June 5.