“Shirley” (2020) Review

Dir. Josephine Decker; Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman
[4 out of 4 stars]

With Shirley (2020), director Josephine Decker has orchestrated a fugue. I mean this in both senses of the word. The film is a perceptive interweaving of the same themes, iterations building upon another until a lush and brazen meditation on pain, imprisonment, and marriage assembles in front of our eyes. As it were, this makes the film inseparable from the psychiatric understanding of the word, that state of mental illness where one loses a sense of identity, place, and self. Decker does all of this by choosing a mere sliver of acclaimed author Shirley Jackson’s life (Elisabeth Moss) life, that period in 1951 when she was writing the novel Hangsaman and interrogating what a fictionalized look into the shattered marriage and mental state of a pained woman can tell us. 

Shirley is constructed in a way that is less interested in narrative thrust than in an examination of what happens when control in a marriage swings too far to one member of the union. We see this through a clever choice to introduce a fictional couple, pregnant Rosie (Odessa Young) and her new husband Fred (Logan Lerman), who come to live with Shirley and her longtime husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at the then women’s college Bennington College. Fred is around to help Stanley teach his courses, and Rosie and Fred are due to stay with Stanley and Shirley until they get their feet under them. What they don’t know is that Stanley also intends to have Rosie play housewife and look in on his troubled wife so he does not have to think about her during the school day. Shirley is agoraphobic and spends the majority of her days in a depressive state trying to write while self-medicating with alcohol. What spins out is a tale of two couples at distinctly different points in their marital lives: Rosie and Fred just starting out while Shirley and Stanley have years of history between them, including the tortuous things they do to one another in the name of love and success. It isn’t very long before Rosie and Fred begin to mirror the marital strife of their housemates.

It is this centrality of the two couples that made me first think of a fugue. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins approach the story as if putting Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) through a gothic kaleidoscope. The academic setting and the romantic, naive younger couple entering the fray are hallmarks of both stories, but while Who’s Afraid centers on the way that the older couple employs the younger to go to war, Shirley is much more interested in how the two women cope with husbands who most often seem to have little interest in their passions and commitments beyond seeing them as fit to stay home and keep everything tidy. Decker uses this constrained femininity to help us understand how Rosie and Fred fall from romantic bliss into overt hostility. We see the men disregard and belittle their wives, and it is unsettling how easily Fred begins to mirror Stanley in his approach to both women and academics. Fred begs Rosie to play housekeeper so he can spend more time at the college, time that he uses to get involved in an undisclosed number of affairs with his students, another detail he shares with Stanley. 

The longer the film goes on, the more common ground Rosie and Shirley find. It begins as a contentious relationship where Shirley takes out her anger on Rosie, needling her about Fred and Rosie’s “shotgun wedding” and unexpected pregnancy and sowing doubt about Fred’s morality. It is only as Rosie begins to doubt her husband herself, and that Shirley begins to see how alike she and Rosie are in their situations, that the relationship gives way to a tense but supportive friendship. In one particularly striking scene, Shirley runs off into the woods with Rosie following. Shirley picks a mushroom and tells Rosie it is a death cap, a deadly mushroom, and then she eats some of it. Rosie begs her to spit it out and then yells for help, but then Shirley begins to laugh and reveals she ate the benign oyster mushroom, not the death cap, saying, “I like you Rosie, I would never hurt you.” There is affection that grows from that point on, and suddenly the story of two couples becomes the gothic examination of two women who strive to get control over their lives even as their husbands do their damndest to undermine them. 

With the women’s relationship in mind, I come to the second fugue, and more specifically to the sublime wedding of Moss’ performance and Decker’s directorial sensibilities. Moss continues to deliver fascinating and unsettling performances. In a year that has already been graced with her shattered but resolute work in The Invisible Man (2020), her performance as Shirley is a masterstroke of tone. Shirley is unwell. She stays in bed all day. She cannot sleep at night. She drinks and smokes through all hours. If she is disturbed while writing, she shouts and throws things. Yet, Moss shows us that her reality is the result of a life lived not according to plan. Stanley is a cheerful philanderer only showing interest in his wife when it comes to the writing she can produce, and so she exists in a marriage where he views her as an intellectual challenge alone. Moss is a master of facial expressions, and the acrobatics that she puts her eyebrows, lips, and nostrils through while emoting a woman desperate to find solace in her writing and fight to maintain a grip on her reality is stunning. Shirley can be shrieking and grimacing in one moment only to be a near cataonic lump on the floor in the next, and Moss modulates through each setting flawlessly. It is a painful performance to watch, as she slips between imagining parts of her novel, dreaming about “worms in the crisper,” and fighting with her husband, but that pain also exists in turn with a flourishing connection with Rosie. Moss handles it all deftly, and I was captivated by each of her scenes.

Decker underscores all of this with a haunting and disorienting visual language. When shooting Moss and Young, she often opts for one of two shots; a close-up that emphasizes the claustrophobia of their situation as cloistered housewives, or a medium-long shot that makes them seem small in contrast to the large windows, stairwells, and ceilings of the house. It’s a trick Hitchcock put to great use in Rebecca (1940), and Decker reinvigorates it here to achieve the same sense of enclosure. To best reflect Shirley’s unstable internal state, Decker and her cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen shoot most of the film in a shadowy and muted palette. The prevalence of shadows and low-key lighting lend the whole proceeding the quality of a memory. We see this most clearly when Shirley sits and imagines her short story, one that focuses on a young woman from the college who went missing in the woods. Decker shoots these moments out of focus in a woodland that is a muddle of browns and greens. Furthermore, Young also plays the character Shirley imagines as her protagonist, and this does even more to blur the bounds of what Rosie is, and what is this woman Shirley has constructed in her mind. Sometimes when we see Young, we don’t know if it is actually the flesh and blood Rosie that exists in the narrative, or an extension of Shirley’s imagination supplying a hallucinatory effect on the real world. Taken with Moss’ performance, it is a wonderful example of pure filmmaking that can be accomplished when artists work in sync. 

We live in a Hollywood age when  stories about real people are most often presented to audiences through a steady stream of uninspired bio-pics that seem more concerned with hitting the textbook facts than creating compelling cinema [I’m looking at you Tolkien (2019)]. Shirley is an antidote to such apathetic filmmaking. Decker has composed a film that presents a meditation on the legacy and character of a real life figure without giving two shakes about making it representative of the exact way her life played out. The major strokes are all there to make sure it is true to the spirit of Shirley’s life, but this film makes no bid at telling her life story. Instead, it invites us to consider what two women had to contend with during a few months in 1951 while their husbands pushed them away, while one happened to be writing a novel about a missing girl, and the film is all the better for it.

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