When a perfect young couple moves in with an older couple, they get more than they bargained for and it permanently alters their lives. The basic premise of Shirley is simple. But when the older couple consists of troubled horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), it’s so much more complicated for aspiring professor, Fred (Logan Lerman), and his young wife, Rose (Odessa Young).
Shirley and Stanley’s marriage is combative in a way that immediately calls to mind Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. A pair of razor-sharp, usually very drunk, intellectuals, the trade jabs and barbs and occasional body blows. All the while, each pulls one of their new tenants into their orbit. Stanley takes Fred under his wing at Bennington College in the 1950s, while Shirley, struggling with her latest novel, draws in Rose as friend, servant, inspiration, and erotic fixation point.
There’s a definite kinship between Shirley and director Josephine Decker’s previous film, Madeline’s Madeline. She places her camera close to her subjects. Handheld and free, she creates an immersive sensation, placing the viewer in the midst of the action, closer than a fly-on-the-wall. At times uncomfortably, disconcertingly close, as if you can reach out and touch the players.
Decker adapts Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel and meticulously crafts a hazy, esoteric tableau, drifting from a vague dreaminess to quietly unsettling nightmare territory and back. Tamar-kali’s score, ominous orchestral pieces flecked with near-discordant plucked strings; unusual framing that often employs mirrors and other artificial borders; as well as deep, unexpected focus changes, filters, and lighting cues enhance Rose’s perplexed, ill-at-ease position. In this borderline-otherworldly realm, Decker imbues something as simple as a shot of college girls dressed in bold, bright colors with a sinister, almost vampiric feel.
There’s not much to say about Elisabeth Moss that hasn’t already been said in much more eloquent fashion, but she’s simply one of our best working actors. Shirley once again provides her a showcase. Prickly and abrasive, she delights in her meanness, teasing and tormenting Rose at the same time she brings her into her confidence and envelops her, using her as inspiration for her novel. Nuanced and textured, Moss disappears into the iconic writer.
While Rose is clearly in over her head, uncertain and treading water, Odessa Young never suffers the same fate. She holds her own with Moss, transforming from meek, out-of-her-depth new bride to assistant, confidant, lover. As she grows and evolves, so does the way Shirley looks at her and the way she interacts with the world. It’s a fantastic, quietly devastating turn.
When Stuhlbarg and Moss come together, Shirley absolutely sings. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone. Again, they channel the bitter, antagonistic energy of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Virginia Woolf, while adding their own twists and foibles and competitive wrinkles in the relationship. Their back-and-forth offers the meatiest joys of the film.
Logan Lerman doesn’t have as much to do as his co-stars. He’s solid, as usual, but after the first act, Fred becomes a device to move the plot forward. In the beginning, his marriage with Rose mirrors Shirley and Stanley’s, but ultimately it becomes more of a functional tool. Fred’s actions, his betrayals and drives, serve to further Rose’s evolution and progression—she reacts and responds to him as one might a prop. Their arc focuses much more in Rose and her journey than it does on their relationship—to the film’s benefit, as Fred is also the least interesting of the primary characters.
Shirley begins as almost a chamber drama and develops into a mystery, one with romantic, erotic currents, as Shirley enlists Rose to help her investigate the missing woman that forms a key part of her novel, a quest that brings them closer. All the while, Decker tells a story of two women bearing the pressure of a society that picks at their every flaw, that wants to publicly flay them as the men cheat and betray and glad-hand their way through the world without care or consequence.
The deliberate, methodical pace won’t be for everyone, but Shirley offers a deep, delicate portrait of a complex, complicated woman. Elisabeth Moss once again stuns, as does Odessa Young, and Josephine Decker has created something remarkable. [Grade: A]