Newcomer Odessa Young delivers a breakthrough performance and Elisabeth Moss gives one of her best performances ever in director Josephine Decker’s brilliant follow-up to Madeline’s Madeline
In Josephine Decker’s new feature film, Shirley, Elisabeth Moss stars as the late Shirley Jackson, the troubled, brilliant psychological horror writer of the novels “The Bird’s Nest” and “The Haunting of Hill House,” the latter of which was adapted to a Netflix series in 2018.
Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’s fictional version of Shirley finds her in the stuck in the midst of severe bout of writer’s block in early 1960s Vermont. Her depression and crippling agoraphobia haven’t done her any favors. She’s been homebound for the last two months, barely leaving bed, and doted upon by her husband, snooty professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose short fuse is wearing thin. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is the practically the inverse of Elio’s father in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name. Stuhlbarg might be playing an academic with an intimidating vocabulary again, but here in Shirley, all warmth, honesty, and grace has been replaced with jealousy, resentment, and bitterness — mostly directed toward Shirley.
Shirley’s long been celebrated for her unsettling prose, including her New Yorker short story, “The Lottery,” which Rose (Odessa Young) reads on her train commute with academic husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to stay with Shirley and Stanley in their home while Fred works for Stanley at the local college. Rose recounts the gruesome passage in “The Lottery” for Fred where a woman is stoned to death by her neighbors and family. He dismisses it as weird, but Rose says she thinks it’s just terrific. Her morbid curiosity only deeps when she and Fred arrive at Shirley and Stanley home when they’re entertaining guests. When one asks Shirley what’s she working on, she says, “A novella called none of your business.”
As Shirley, Stanley, Fred, and Rose settle into their new, unusual living arrangement, Stanley coerces Rose into acting as an extra set of eyes on volatile, unpredictable Shirley, who rebuffs Rose’s attempts at generosity at ever turn. Moss is completely in her element playing this dimension of Shirley, mischievously pushing Rose’s buttons with devilish amusement. Young delivers a fantastic breakthrough performance as Rose, who’s transfixed by Shirley’s dedication to her work and debasement of traditional female roles.
Shirley plays like a demented take on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with a surrealist twist. The four clash, compete, and push each other’s buttons, but it’s Rose and Shirley who awaken something profound within one another. Shirley finds inspiration in Rose’s demeanor, breaking her writer’s block and she begins to fervently write a new novel. It may be premature to speculate on the 2021 Academy Awards Best Actress race before this year’s award is even handed out, but the Moss is just that excellent. Moss delivers a ferocious, electrifying performance that ranks among the best work of her career.
In her previous film, the transfixing Madeline’s Madeline, Decker created a fascinating ebb and flow dynamic of creative obsession between dancer Madeline (Helena Howard) and dance company director Evangeline (Molly Parker). Decker strikes a similar chord here with Rose and Shirley, but here the transaction feels more mutually beneficial. Decker’s vision is uncompromising and the film’s technical elements only deepen its impact — particularly the unnerving sound design and roving, invasive cinematography. Shirley is a beautiful, twisted tour de force from a cast and crew operating at the height of their powers.
Shirley is an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. [2/10 UPDATE] Neon has picked up the Killer Films production for US distribution.
Donny Sheldon is a Philadelphia-raised, Los Angeles-based, WGA-award-winning writer. He studied Film & Cinema Studies in college at American University and earned his MFA in Dramatic Writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s followed the Academy Awards race since he was 10 years-old when his (once) beloved Titanic swept the Oscars that year — although now he’s of the opinion that Boogie Nights probably should have done that. You can find Donny on Twitter and Instagram at @dtfinla