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Elisabeth Moss Brings Shirley Jackson To Unsettling Life With “Shirley”

The author Shirley Jackson led a fascinating life. A full on biopic of Jackson would certainly be worth exploring. However, filmmaker Josephine Decker has something far different and far more unsettling up her sleeve with Shirley, a psychological thriller more so than anything else. That being said, if this is how an auteur can tackle biopics going forward, that’s something to be excited about. Armed with a full throated performance in the title role from Elisabeth Moss, Decker lets her audience have it. This isn’t what you’re expecting and it might turn off some, but for others, it’s going to be a blast. Hitting tomorrow, it’s well worth a watch.

This film is a psychological thriller, mixed with a bit of a character study (framed within the body of what might otherwise be a biopic). Renowned and reclusive horror writer Shirley Jackson (Moss) is about to write her masterpiece. Living with her randy husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a philandering college professor, she’s about to see her routines completely ruined. Stanley has invited newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) to stay with them. Fred is going to be teaching at the university, while Rose is pregnant. Stanley has eyes for Rose, while he disregards Fred as an intellectual. Mostly, Shirley just stays in bed and struggles to write. With tensions between Shirley and Stanley quickly rising, they turn their attention to the younger couple. The middle-aged pair begin toying with both, and especially in regards to Shirley and Rose. The result is anything but normal, though it may just generate what will become one of Jackson’s most noteworthy novels. Decker directs a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Rounding out the cast, which is largely a four hander, are the likes of Allen McCullough, Edward O’Blenis, Steve Vinovich and more. Tamar-kali handles the music, while the cinematography is by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen.

Elisabeth Moss breathes tremendously devilish and unsettling life into the title role. She shines in a cast that also includes strong roles for Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Odessa Young. Each get moments to really let loose, though Moss is the one who you can’t help but remain focused on, throughout. While Lerman and Stuhlbarg do fade into the background at times, Moss and Young have some stirringly dark sequences. Young is who we identify with, but Moss is who you pay attention to. Decker’s direction and Gubbins’ script make sure of that.

Shirley is not going to be for everyone, that kind of goes without saying here. The way it zigs when other biopic type work would zag may create a disconnect. Josephine Decker wouldn’t have it any other way, too, as her flick dovetails into nearly genre territory at times. With Lerman, Moss, Stuhlbarg, and Young up for whatever she throws at them, she takes her cast, and by extension, the audience, for quite a ride. You may learn less about Jackson than you might have in something more traditional, but this is certainly going to be a far more memorable experience, cinematically.

Tomorrow, audiences willing to go in a very unusual direction will have something rather unique to sink their teeth into when Shirley opens. As long as you’re not dead set on seeing an old fashioned look at the life of author Shirley Jackson, this should really hit the indie movie spot. Give it a shot, if only for Elisabeth Moss (though there’s more here to appreciate than that), and you’ll likely agree…

Be sure to check out Shirley, available to watch this weekend!

(Photos courtesy of IFC Films)

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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