"Shirley": An eerie look into Shirley Jackson's mind

In Shirley, director Josephine Decker weaves a tantalizing tale of one young couple’s foray into life with Professor Stanley Hyman and his wife, writer Shirley Jackson, who finds inspiration for her next novel in the story of a missing girl. The title character is based on the real-life horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson, famous for The Haunting of Hill House, We Have Always Lived in a Castle, and "The Lottery.” Decker manages to evoke Jackson’s spirit through her direction, rather than strictly tell her story. In fact, Jackson plays a more supporting role than that of a lead in the movie bearing her name.  The film begins with shots of Fred and Rose Nemser, the young couple moving in with Hyman and Jackson. Fred has been chosen to help offload some of Hyman’s professorial work, a dynamic reminiscent of Oliver and Mr. Perlman’s arrangement in Call Me By Your Name, and the professor has seen the advantage in having people around to help look after his wife in her phases of madness. As such, he asks the young couple to stay with them “until they find a place” and asks Rose to keep an eye on Shirley—as well as chores around the house. Shirley’s early antics in the film push Rose to her limit, but curiously the two women befriend each other, much to the surprise of their husbands. Shirley is deep in the throes of writing her next novel (which she calls “Hangsaman”), though she suffers immensely from crippling writer’s block, prompting her at-times hellish behavior and severe agoraphobia. As a result of her condition, she enlists Rose’s help to investigate the disappearance of a local college girl, in whom she finds both inspiration and kinship. Against the backdrop of Decker’s eerie vignette, Tamar-Kali's unsettling score is brilliant and captivates the already anxious audience. A symphony of singular piano notes and string plucks send viewers into a tizzy, just waiting for Shirley to do or say something outrageous or in anticipation of someone more sinister.  

Decker follows Rose and Fred’s relationship closely, weaving in clips and imaginations of both the missing girl on her final hike and Rose, both as herself and as the missing girl. On the sidelines, we learn more about the nature of Stanley and Shirley’s dynamic, wherein he is allowed to cheat but never hide his affairs from his wife. He also plays the part of editor and critic to Shirley. Stanley proclaims himself to be personally offended by mediocrity; if something is bad, he declares it to be at least a little exciting. It is for these reasons that Shirley is hesitant to show him her progress on her latest novel, “Hangsaman” and isn’t confident in his potential reactions to it. As a result of her mental condition, Stanley believes a novel to be too great of an undertaking for Shirley, though she is steadfast in her refusal to work on anything else, no matter how demanding the novel becomes.  

As the film progresses, we see a closer, more intimate relationship form between Rose and Shirley. One night at dinner, Stanley raises his own suspicions that his wife is hiding something from him, though in more of a playful manner than anything else. Fred, on the other hand, is completely entrenched in his own work to even notice anything going on in Rose’s life, in relation to Shirley and elsewhere. As relationships change and are forged between the characters, the film’s focus on infidelity becomes more apparent in every facet: personal lives, the case of the missing girl, and the novel in progress. The characters face personal changes as well, which leads them in remarkably different paths than they seemed to be on from the beginning of the film.  

Elisabeth Moss’ snarky, wide-eyed performance as the title character dazzled audiences from beginning to end. Her portrayal of the famous author under Decker’s direction is somewhat reminiscent of her character June/Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale. Similarly, Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal of Stanley Hyman reminded me of both Mr. Perlman in Call Me By Your Name and Commander Lawrence in The Handmaid’s Tale. Stuhlbarg gave Stanley the charisma of Mr. Perlman, that combination of witty charm and frisky spirit typical of the 1950s. This attitude bolstered his character’s credibility, especially in relation to the creepy, gropey behavior exhibited by men at that time.  

There was never a time during this movie that I was at ease. The score, Shirley’s fickle behavior, the downward spiral of Fred and Rose’s relationship, and images of the missing girl all made the experience disconcerting. Shirley’s sarcastic comments and Stanley’s charm managed to cut the tension at various times, though I always had the sense that something bad was about the happen, or that the audience would be let in on some dark secret. To see Shirley’s story set as the supporting act was refreshing, as the film isn’t meant to teach us about her life, but to give us more of an idea of what was going on in her mind. We see the darkness that pervades her stories and which has helped her write many a novel and short story. 

I left the theater feeling slightly uncomfortable, but content with what I had just witnessed. Somehow, seeing Shirley’s satisfaction at Stanley’s glowing reviews of her novel brought me a similar feeling of contentedness, as if I had gotten to see the genius at work before her most trusted editor and critic.  

 

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