Shirley Jackson was a wonderfully spooky and wildly talented writer and she undoubtedly deserves a biopic that lives beyond the borders of ordinary. This is exactly that movie.
Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) is a reclusive horror writer known for her gloomy temperament and spiky sensibility. Husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a literary critic and professor at the nearby college, calls her “sickly” and “unwell” as he philanders all over campus. He and Shirley take in a young newlywed couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young); Fred is to be Stanley’s protégé, and though Rose was not long ago a promising young student herself, Stanley now expects that she’ll cook and clean and care for his oft-bedridden wife.
Shirley is writing yet another masterpiece and while her creative process is at first disrupted by the new arrivals, she soon finds Rose to be open and trusting and ripe for manipulation. Rose is curious, and fascinated by the brilliant author, and though Shirley seems, at times, grateful for a friend, her only true allegiance is to her work. And she is, of course, filled with neuroses and wildly unpredictable, so the house becomes volatile as loyalties shift too quickly to be counted upon. Meanwhile, Stanley is jealous of his would-be protégé and inappropriate with Rose, which means no one’s motivations are pure and home has become quite hostile. The more hostile things become, the more the film itself blurs the lines between fiction and reality.
Josephine Decker’s film is provocative and challenging much like the author herself – which, to be honest, means that I didn’t enjoy the film so much as admired it. Certainly I admired the committed, prickly performances, the dedication to some pretty unsavoury characters, and an ambiguous, haunting story-telling style that was nearly a performance in itself. It was an uncomfortable watch though, not what I would consider satisfying, too off-putting for me to truly recommend it. Although I appreciate the boldness it takes to make deliberately ugly art, I always end up wondering what the point is, exactly, if no one wants to watch it.