Literature created by women is generally viewed through a different lens compared to the one assigned to male authors. A lot is explored regarding the woman author’s psyche, life events, gender politics, etc. This particular analysis was a popular one while I was in school and has carried on since. It is through this analysis that we are able to better understand the work. However, there are many things that remain a mystery once we’re done with our brief analysis. We’ve only taken a snapshot into that author’s background without considering all aspects of that potentially fruitful life. It is this word – snapshot – that makes me turn to Josephine Decker’s latest film, SHIRLEY. It is through the snapshot into this period of author Shirley Jackson’s life presented in the film that provides a meal ripe for dissection. Through a common, but significant usage of a younger woman as a foil to Shirley Jackson’s life up to this point, the audience can see how gender roles, health issues, and more came to play a hand into her presumed madness as well as her writing.
To be clear, this is not a biopic in the traditional sense. SHIRLEY is an adaptation based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell. We first meet Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) after the recent success of her short story The Lottery. She’s struggling with how to approach her next project when a young couple arrives for the semester. This disruption to her daily life coupled with her physical illness and chronic pain creates a bitter awkwardness between the author and the young pregnant wife (and foil), Rose Nemser (Odessa Young). However, as time passes, the similarities between the two bond them together and, when startling truths are revealed to young Rose, it becomes clear that there is a fine line between madness and sanity. And, for these two middle-class white women, their actions to the wrongs they are dealt with will either condemn them or save them.
SHIRLEY is entrenched in the feminine. There are numerous moments throughout the course of the film where I had to bite my lip. Most women will understand the shared glances, the growing bitterness in having to accept a bitter situation outside of your control. In the case of SHIRLEY, we see this approach in how almost everyone in the film tiptoes around the titular author and her mental health. Her anxiety was the tale of legends. That combined with a cantankerous personality (that most likely had to do with the pills she was taking) and her multiple physical ailments lend itself to the idea that she is a tortured literary genius. We see onscreen how those around her skirt around her issues while also whispering behind her back. We see this through the eyes of the young Rose, who serves as the audience’s eyes and ears throughout the film and learn quickly how the perception of a madwoman has a ripple effect within circles.
Utilizing Rose as a foil to SHIRLEY helps the audience piece together how easily their paths intertwine with one another. While Rose is still young and hopeful, the author’s experiences have shaped her cynicism, but with good reason. There’s hidden wisdom she has that many women will relate to. Seeing through the coded innuendo between her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Rose’s husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), we can see the game SHIRLEY is playing while waiting for Rose to put together the pieces. This is not a world where women can thrive. It’s a world where women are still at the mercy of their husbands, the men who can commit them away at their convenience if too many issues arise. It is through these interactions as we wait for the ball to drop that we grasp onto that connecting strand of the feminine. We all have a story of infidelity or know someone who does. And, with the open marriage Jackson had with her husband Stanley, it provides fertile ground to explore these particular dynamics as a gateway to stoking the flames of madness.
Both Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young shine in their respective roles. Without their chemistry and deft handling of the complexities between the two characters, it would be difficult to invest in this exploration. Moss has no problem exploring the unlikable and harsh personality of SHIRLEY. But she reminds us of the human being hidden beneath that cynicism and sharpness. This is a woman who is stifled by her husband, pressured to write while also not truly autonomous. She is haunted. Waiting for something that we can’t quite grasp. We watch her ride the wave of her mania, unleash insults upon the young couple, and those who would dare cross her, but also experience her overriding pity as she watches the young Rose learn her place in this cruel world as a wife to an academic. Young’s portrayal of Rose, especially as the pieces fall together in that final act, is one to watch. We feel her admiration of the author turn to desire and disgust. We feel her struggle as she is left to tend to a baby and a husband who just wants to be recognized. And, when secrets are revealed, we feel her heartbreak verge into madness. Both are a pleasure to watch onscreen and, for their performances alone, I’d recommend the film.
What serves as a distraction from the overall exploration between these two characters is the haunting elements loosely connected to Jackson’s novel inspiration in the film. The novel that she aims to write in the film would eventually become the Hangsaman. And, in some ways, the deceased girl that will inspire Jackson’s development of the protagonist is haunting her. As SHIRLEY mentions in the film, we all know a girl like Paula. Of a girl who goes missing in the woods as she’s about to enter adulthood. And while the inclusion of this girl’s death helps to create further thematic layers that we can dissect regarding the feminine, framing the death as a haunting detracts. This literal and figurative haunting, while tackled beautifully by director Josephine Decker, takes away from the overall story. It is a visual format of psychosis that doesn’t necessarily lend itself unless meant to showcase the author’s madness and connection to her work.
It is hard to walk away from SHIRLEY and not feel deeply impacted by the story. This tale isn’t an overwhelmingly new one. But the layered exploration of themes, the haunting execution, and the captivatingly uncomfortable performance delivered by Elisabeth Moss and the earnestness of Odessa Young’s Rose presents a package to cautiously unpack. There’s so much weight to what we are given. It is a meal that will sit heavy in your stomach, taking hours to digest and will linger for days. While not entirely perfect in its delivery, this film will be one many carry with them. And, hopefully, will end up sparking more interest in the titular author herself.
SHIRLEY is now available for viewing everywhere.