SHIRLEY movie poster | ©2020 Samuel Goldwyn Pictures

SHIRLEY movie poster | ©2020 Neon

Rating: R
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Writer: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
Director: Josephine Decker
Distributor: Neon
Release Date: June 5, 2020

SHIRLEY is one of those movies where the title character turns out to be a supporting player, albeit in this case quite a forceful one. Based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2015 novel, SHIRLEY deals with real-life writer Shirley Jackson, who authored THE LOTTERY and THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, to name two of her more influential works.

Director Josephine Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins introduce us to Shirley in the early ‘60s, when she’s already had a fair amount of success and notoriety. But now she’s struggling with writer’s block and agoraphobia, living in a literally vine-covered cottage with her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), who’s a literature professor at Vermont’s Bennington College.

Into their lives come junior professor Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and the story’s real protagonist, Rose (Odessa Young). Rose and Fred are married. His family disowned him due to the elopement, which makes her feel beholden to him. Rose is also is a big fan of Shirley’s, though this is immediately tested on their first meeting, when Shirley is rude and dismissive.

Spotting an opportunity, Stanley offers the young couple free room and board in exchange for Rose taking on housekeeping and Shirley-sitting duties. Rose is less than thrilled but Fred talks her into it. Eventually, the relationship between Rose and Shirley becomes deeper and more complex, with Shirley broadening Rose’s view of things, and Rose giving Shirley some inspiration for the novel she’s working on about Paula Jean Weldon, a missing college student.

SHIRLEY suggests at times that it’s going to be different sorts of films. Our intro to Shirley and Stanley as a couple locked in warring embrace, combined with the initial conventionality of Rose and Fred, suggests we’re in for a fact-based variation on WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Later, as Rose takes it upon herself to investigate Weldon’s disappearance from Bennington, it seems as though we might be getting a murder mystery. Another development makes us wonder if we’re turning toward romantic melodrama.

SHIRLEY has elements of all of the above, but in keeping with Jackson’s mercurial persona, it doesn’t want to settle into any one genre, or provide firm answers to most of the questions it raises.

Moss gives a magnificent performance, so that we believe in every one of Shirley’s moods as they swing every which way. She also gets some snappy dialogue, which Moss delivers with relish. But we’re never sure how much Shirley is impacted by what’s happening, as opposed to how much she’s enlivened by seeing her own impact on others. (We’re certainly not meant to take any of this as an explanation of Jackson’s writing process for HANGSAMAN, which was actually published in 1951, over a decade before SHIRLEY’s events.) Maybe she’s moved by these interactions, or maybe she’s moved by the fact that she can manipulate and unsettle people. Shirley is meant to be enigmatic here, and it’s Moss’s skill that makes multiple interpretations plausible.

In contrast, we understand how everything we see shapes Rose. Young gives the character gumption and appeal, but the parallels the movie draws between Rose and the lost Weldon don’t strike an emotional chord.

Stuhlbarg is excellent as Stanley, and Lerman provides sturdy support.

SHIRLEY is handsome and piques our curiosity, and Moss captures our attention. But the film is a little too elliptical. We never feel ourselves to be in emotional danger, let alone the thrill of terror that Jackson’s writing inspires.

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