It’s a busy time in our Virtual Movie Palace, with new films still being added every week, but like last Friday I’d like to shift focus slightly and take you back to a film that we have been playing since early June. It just so happens that SHIRLEY, from director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), is one of my favorite films now available to rent from home.
Adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins from the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, the film had its world premiere at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival last January where it was seen and loved by our staff. The film tells the story of a young couple, Rose and Fred as played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, who move into the house of author Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman, as played by Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg. The young couple enters the household full of love and idealism, Rose expecting a child and Fred expecting a job at Bennington College where Stanley teaches, but are soon pulled down to Earth by the tumultuous and complicated personalities of their hosts.
Though the characters of Rose and Fred are completely fictional, they enter sometime in the late 1940s while Jackson is writing her second novel Hangsaman, fresh off the success of her short story The Lottery. But as Jackson suffers from debilitating agoraphobia, not to mention constant passive aggression and pressure from her husband, writing has become difficult and Rose is put in the position of looking after the fragile Jackson while also caring for the household.
If you recall Josephine Decker’s previous film, Madeline’s Madeline, which played at Cinetopia and briefly at the State Theatre in 2018, the director has a virtuosity for experimental narratives. Though Shirley is MUCH more practically told than Madeline, Decker’s visual pallet is perfect to illustrate not only Jackson’s wild mindscape but also to express her uniquely gothic and profound writing process.
Decker rides the plot on a fragile tightrope and sends us into a surreal haze as we are given visuals that may or may not be real, relationships prone to deception and manipulation, and a loose story of a missing girl within the narrative of the film. From the mist emerges an allegorical story of female resilience and the “madness” of the mid-century suburban housewife.
What keeps the story so interesting are the performances of Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men) and Michael Stuhlberg (A Serious Man), who light the way in the haze and pack an arsenal of witty and epically destructive one-liners. However, the performance of Odessa Young (Assassination Nation) cannot be overlooked, because as the film plays out it becomes apparent that Rose is the actual protagonist and it’s her transformation that becomes the most compelling of all the characters.
Perhaps the film’s greatest gift is that it provides context to the life of Shirley Jackson, and a call-to-action to seek out her literature. In fact, check out Nicola’s Books, the presenting sponsor of this film, to find her most popular works such as The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
Although there is nothing that really compares to Shirley, it’s hard not to see similarities to Bennett Miller’s Capote, the 2005 biographical drama that depicted Truman Capote’s research for the landmark true crime novel In Cold Blood. And you can also check out Trumbo, now streaming on Netflix, which is another great film about writing set in the 1940s and 50s. While all play a bit fast and loose with the truth, Shirley is much more wild and hallucinatory and definitely benefits from multiple viewings.
And once you’ve completed the film, you can visit https://neonrated.com/posts/shirley-q-a to view a series of recorded Q&As with Josephine Decker, Elisabeth Moss, and other special guests. And when you view the film in our Virtual Movie Palace, it will also include a special recorded introduction from Decker as well.
Shirley is now playing, which you can rent for $5.99 to support us and our friends at Neon, or you can find it streaming on Hulu. And this weekend, be sure to check out Suzi Q and be back next week to read my take on this terrific rock documentary with Detroit connections that was meant to premiere at this year’s Freep Film Festival.