Shirley Jackson’s works of horror — be it novels like 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House or her beloved short fiction — established her as an author with a masterful command of mood. Considering Jackson’s infamy within the genre, her stories are surprisingly low on conventional scares. In her world, even the most mundane circumstances are teeming with an implacable dread. While a character might not be in any visible danger, you can never quite shake the notion that something is terribly wrong.
With Shirley, director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) takes a rather ingenious approach to tackling Jackson’s legacy. Decker wisely chose neither to adapt Hill House for the umpteenth time nor follow the stale biopic recipe, which is to be historically faithful and painfully dull all at once.
Shirley is a fictional look at Jackson during the writing of her second novel, 1951’s Hangsaman. Yes, Elisabeth Moss once again portrays a woman battling staggering emotional trauma, and once again her astonishing commitment makes it feel totally fresh. Needless to say, she’s as electric in the title role as you’ve come to expect. What you may not expect is how writer Sarah Gubbins (using a novel by Susan Merrell) centers the screenplay around a young woman named Rose (Odessa Young), who arrives at the Jackson residence with her fiancé, Fred (Logan Lerman), after he earns a position working for Shirley’s husband, literary professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg).
What transpires between these four is entirely fabricated, and yet it’s authentic to the spirit of Jackson’s stories as well as her real-life battle with mental illness. Decker mines more insight about Jackson’s tortured writing process by fictionalizing it than she would have from merely translating a Wikipedia page to the screen. This is closer to Black Swan than an author biopic like Capote; tonally, it’s a horror film first and a domestic drama second.
The opening moments find Rose on a train and reading Jackson’s infamous short story “The Lottery.” After reading its bleak twist ending, she rushes Fred into an empty compartment for some quick sex. A queasy sexuality pervades the movie, and it’s further unsettling given how each character uses sex to satisfy an unhealthy compulsion, be it an erotic fixation on death or a need for control. Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen shoots near everything using shallow depth of field, keeping one subject sharply in focus and others in the background harder to make out. All the off-kilter camerawork might prove a bit much for certain people, but it also creates the disorienting tone of a nightmare — one which the viewer has unwittingly stepped into alongside Rose.
And the Jackson household is certainly a hellish one. Shirley, agoraphobic and frequently cruel, begins her first real conversation with the new tenants by calling Rose a slut and humiliating her until she storms off from the dinner table. Stanley seems almost amused by Shirley’s disturbing outbursts, and there’s clearly a smidge of codependency between the two. Still, that doesn’t mean Stanley is above sleeping around with other women or leaving his wife home alone for long stretches at a time to wrestle with her slipping sanity. Stuhlbarg is phenomenal in the role; initially, he comes across as the same submissive dweeb he typically plays, but that meekness turns out to be a carefully calculated facade. Shifting from pitiful to lecherous to charismatic with startling ease, Stanley is complex and sinister in equal measure.
The point-of-view never strays from either Shirley or Rose, and given the two seldom have reason to leave, their dreary manor starts to resemble the sort of haunted house found in Jackson’s fiction. Despite the confined setting, the film’s ideas are far-reaching. Each character relationship illustrates a distinct theme: the moral boundaries of suffering for your art, the pressure of writing a new novel after achieving success, the unfair restrictions husbands can place on their wives and so on. Most importantly though, Shirley delivers a sensation not unlike reading the final, chilling line of one of Jackson’s best stories. As Rose remarks at one point, it all feels so “thrillingly horrible.”