Josephine Decker’s Shirley finds Elisabeth Moss continuing her incredible run with another character that’s just as fascinating as the actor herself.
Elisabeth Moss has been on a tear, turning in performances widely lauded by critics and audiences alike. Her latest, Josephine Decker’s Shirley, is her best yet, giving a controlled yet manic rendition of author and horror powerhouse Shirley Jackson. Her magnetism is heightened by each tight camera shot, each intimate moment that Decker captures. Both women deserve recognition for their work in Shirley, a film that oozes sensuality and keeps your eyes glued to the screen though little of note is actually occurring.
Moss is joined by Michael Stuhlbarg, playing her husband Stanley Hyman, the professor and literary critic. Stuhlbarg shines in small moments of conversation, as a man who jumps from supportive to controlling to promiscuous in a matter of seconds, who has no time or patience for mediocrity.
The couple is accompanied in their gothic home by a young couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), a professor-in-training under Stanley and a pregnant housewife taking over the household duties of the Jackson-Hyman disorderly household. The two couples play a cat-and-mouse game over the next 100 minutes, with Stanley and Shirley playing with emotions, sexuality, and the fragility of their new-ish marriage.
Stanley flirts openly with Rose, while he degrades Fred in a systematic nature, allowing him to “hang himself with the rope he gives him.” Shirley’s apathy towards Fred lends all of her energy towards Rose, who she grows closer to over the course of the film, with a physical attraction, or at least interest, increasing as well. Shirley begins giving Rose little tasks to help her with her novel, a story about the college-aged girl that went missing recently in their little town.
Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell and written by Sarah Gubbins, Shirley keeps an air of intimacy threaded throughout, focusing on a few specific people in a specific location, and rarely leaving these people and this place. Decker plays with the expectations of both marital and gender dynamics, as Shirley and Rose take a level of control of their marriages in the third act. The dialogue remains snappy, direct, and intentional, with each glance giving more meaning and significance.
You shouldn’t be in this house with them. The mirror shots situate you as an onlooker, one who is peeking into these people’s lives. You, along with Rose, feel the odd and fleeting weight of life and death, which Decker slides into the film without you even noticing until the last 15 minutes. The house and the movie exist in a state of chilly sexuality, peppered with literary references, warm meals, shuttered doors, and the banging of a typewriter. I became enamored with this couple, and this story, and their eccentric state of being.
Decker’s films have a specific feel to them. They put you into a world full of organized chaos. They give you room to breathe while cutting off your vision into the outside world. With Shirley, she cements herself as one of the best and most interesting indie directors working today. She pulls terrific performances from Moss and Stuhlbarg, and she gives us one of the first great films of 2020.
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Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.