After 2018’s disassociative coming-of-age story Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine Decker returns with another twist on a conventional narrative – the biopic as psychological thriller.
We first see our subject in soft focus, extreme close-up: bare skin, tangled hair, the hint of a face. Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss – more to come), author, shut-in; monstrous in abstract. She will not be isolated for long.
Professor Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman, deliberately undistinguished) and his pregnant wife Rose (a breakout Odessa Young) are coming to stay. They are guests of her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg, magnetic and fiercely ironic); though Rose quickly finds herself pressed into the role as housekeeper. Though initially brushed off by the lady of the house, Rose finds in her an ally, someone whom she can assist – or is it all just a game?
Based on the book by Susan Scarf Merrell, adapted by Sarah Gubbins, Shirley plays like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Falling, Carol Morley’s tale of witchcraft and codependency. Shirley is dependent on Stanley – to get her out of bed, to force her to write, to provide feedback. Stanley, master of his domain, needs someone who challenges him.
Moss’ performance is astonishing; balancing Jackson’s frailty and insecurity with insouciance and spite. Stanley describes Shirley as his Lady Macbeth, but her devilish smirk brings to mind a different Shakespeare quote, “Now could I drink hot blood.” She is matched every step of the way by Young, who charts Rose’s alchemy from wife and mother-to-be into another witchy woman in the melting pot of Jackson’s presence.
Aided by Tamar-kali’s claustrophobic string score and Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s airy, refracted cinematography convey the disintegration of Rose’s personality, absorbed into Shirley’s efforts to fictionalise the disappearance of college student Paula Jean Welden.
Mediocrity is, to Stanley’s mind, unforgivable. There is no fear for Shirley on that front. It is, like its subject, a true original.