Author Shirley Jackson published six novels, two memoirs, and over 200 short stories in her relatively short life, but she’s arguably most well-known for her short story “The Lottery.” It’s that parable which sets the tone for the new film Shirley, a fictional take on the writer’s life.
The film starts with another woman, Rose (Odessa Young), on her way with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) to his new job at a university. Rose, who has an unusual reaction to reading “The Lottery” on the train, and Fred are being put up by Fred’s new boss, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), and his wife, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), much to Shirley’s consternation.
Shirley appears to be in the middle of some sort of mental breakdown, unable to write or even get out of bed without a considerable effort. But the presence of the newly-pregnant Rose awakens something inside Shirley, who seems to have some kind of extrasensory perception. As the film goes along, the trajectories of the two women go in opposite directions, with Shirley gaining strength from Rose’s decline.
Directed by Josephine Decker and adapted by Sarah Gubbins from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel, the whole movie is like living in a fever dream. The film mixes in enough fantastical imagery that the audience can never be sure if what they’re seeing is real or just in a character’s head. Mix in Shirley’s addled mental state, and almost nothing about the film is straightforward.
Some may be satisfied to revel in this kind of world, where significant events seem to happen at random, but for my money, it’s an extremely tedious film experience. Decker and her team appear to be making art for art’s sake, with little regard for any narrative coherence. While this can be stimulating in a visual sense, it’s very frustrating for anyone who just wants to know what the hell is going on.
Moss is one of the more enigmatic actors working today, jumping back and forth between mainstream fare like Us, The Kitchen, and The Invisible Man to oblique films like this and Her Smell. She’s a great actor, but her theatrics here fail to compel. Young outshines her for much of the film, mostly because her character has more of an arc than the one-note Shirley.
While it’s clear that Shirley is supposed to be a type of psychological thriller, the way its story is told and the imagery used to tell it make it less than thrilling. Arthouse fans may appreciate this perplexing film, but most others should look elsewhere.
Shirley is available through such Texas virtual cinemas as Studio Movie Grill, The Grand Berry Theater, The Texas Theatre, Violet Crown Austin, and Women Texas Film Festival.