In Brief: Shirley is kind of a horror movie. Kind of. It’s also based on real life horror writer Shirley Jackson but it probably isn’t a true story. Weird but not in a bad way.
The real draw for the movie Shirley is the acting of Elisabeth Moss. As a quick aside, it is the movie and a story that, too, ought to be a draw. Moss stars in a film based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel about a point in time of the life of horror story author Shirley Jackson.
Her prose includes the 1959 horror classic The Haunting of Hill House.
That book is considered one of the best — if not “the” best — ghost story ever written. While not ranked close to that high, Merrell’s book, and now the film, are a horror movie homage to Jackson’s horror story writing skills.
An asterisk must be inserted here. Merrell’s book and the movie Shirley are also pure fiction. Some say the real life Jackson at one time had a bout with depression. Whether that’s true or not is for her family, historians and others who track such things to say.
My job is to review a movie and not a life.
At the point where we are introduced to the fictional Jackson, she’s depressed and sometimes stays in bed all day. Jackson’s movie husband — based on Merrell’s also fictional account of real life Stanley Hyman — is a stuffy and philandering college professor. He’s a non-stop nag and ruthless string-puller who pushes her to get out of her funk and write something.
The plot says Shirley’s depression is such that she needs help around the house. That brings us to Rose and Fred Nemser. They are fictional characters created by Merrell. Fred has been hired to work with Hyman at the university. Hyman cons the couple into living with them and wants the pregnant Rose to do the cooking and cleaning.
Fred — who needs Hyman for his career advancement — gets poor Rose to agree.
The decision isn’t popular with Shirley, who with nasty barbs and well-timed tirades, treats them both badly. Her heaping insults on people is also encouraged by Stanley who will do anything to get her out of the dumps.
Being drunk and disagreeable brings the woman joy and is — in itself — reason enough to get out of bed.
It is the relationship of Shirley and Rose that fuels the movie. They bond as the novelist begins work on a fictional account of a pretty co-ed who goes missing. In this fictional account of Jackson’s life, the book turns out to be the 1951 novel, “Hangsaman.”
While writing the book, the two women explore the why of her disappearance. Was she murdered? Did she commit suicide? Or did the co-ed simply want to disappear? Those discussions leads to dialogue in which the two women compare notes on how men view women.
That viewpoint — they note — is not all that flattering.
Moss (The Handmaiden’s Tale, The Invisible Man) sans makeup and other physical enhancements fearlessly embraces frumpy and plays the author as a plain-looking woman who is deeply disturbed, has a well-developed mean streak and who appears somewhat soulless.
If that isn’t challenging enough, Moss has to deal with a script that doesn’t call for a lot of dialogue. Often rolling on the floor like she’s in deep, physical pain, Moss uses body language and facial expressions to communicate Jackson’s barely in control emotions. It’s a great piece of work highlighted by her chemistry with co-star Odessa Young who also faces a dialogue challenge.
At first, impressed by Shirley’s writing skills and who she is, Young plays Rose like a teenager girl who finds herself riding in an elevator with her favorite TV reality show star. However, the awe quickly fades when she becomes a target of the author’s scathing, and sometimes drunken, diatribes. As the film progresses, and as Shirley writes her book, the two women bond over the issues women bond over today and that they bonded over in the 1960s.
It is the bonding, how it is portrayed, and the connection and disconnection with their husbands that anchors the film.
Jackson’s husband Stanley is done by the brilliant character actor Michael Stuhlbarg and Rose’s husband Fred who is played by Logan Lerman who starred in the Percy Jackson movies and The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Call Me by Your Name) plays Hyman as an instantly unlikable, manipulative control freak. He has a bunch of ooh-ick scenes where Hyman attempts to pass himself off as loving and caring. Stuhlberg is so good that he comes close to actually personifying slime.
It takes a great actor to pull off that kind of disgusting.
Equally excellent and perfectly disgusting is Lerman. He plays Fred as a total sellout and a two-dimensional non-entity. To sell that kind of character also requires a great deal of talent.
Shirley is Gothic in spades with a splash or two of the Twilight Zone tossed in to add flavor. Director Josephine Decker uses film techniques reminiscent of Terrance Malick. One difference is that Shirley has a plot that’s easier to follow. This isn’t to say that Malick’s movies don’t have a plot. They do. However, most of the time it seems like only Malick knows what’s really going on.
A big part of what makes Shirley such a great movie is how Decker handles the camera. It in constant motion and is as restless as how Jackson is portrayed. The camera darts here, darts there. Decker is fond of super close-ups, the use of odd angles and editing techniques that take on a personality of their own. The camera is as negatively emotional as her characters.
Those techniques help make her movie as unconventional as her characters. No. Scratch unconventional and make it nonconformist in a freaky kind of way.
No matter how you define Decker’s techniques and the acting, what you end up with in Shirley is a very weird horror movie. That’s weird as in good weird, not bad. The trouble with movie weird is they get walked out on when in a theater, or — in the case of TV streaming — shut off. Or they’re ignored altogether.
Horror fans — and everyone else for that matter — do yourself a favor and don’t ignore this one.
Directors: Josephine Decker
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Shirley is a horror movie. Sort of. It’s based on the true-life horror story author Shirley Jackson but it isn’t a true story. Shirley is also a very strange movie. Weird. But weird in a good way. Give this a 4 1/2 on the Friday Flicks with Gary 0 to 5 scale.
You can find Shirley on a number of streaming sources.
Gary Wolcott has been reviewing movies on radio, television and newspaper since 1990. He believes — and this is an estimate only — that he’s seen something close to 10,000 movies in his lifetime. Gary is a lifelong fan of films and catches a couple of hundred movies a year. He believes movies ought to be seen on the big screen and not on the small screen in your living room or family room. While he loves movies, he also says reviewing film can be a real sacrifice and that he sees many movies so you don’t have to.
He is one of KXL 101.1 FM’s film critics and joined the news staff in 2014. Gary is also the film critic for Tri-Cities, Washington’s Tri-City Herald.