Film Review – Shirley
Is there anything Elisabeth Moss can’t do?
It seems whatever acting challenge you put in front of her, whether it be on television or on the big screen, she excels with flying colors. She has the keen ability to adapt to any role and make it unique. Even when she’s given characters with similar traits, Moss is able to inject enough uniqueness into the performance to make it stand on its own. In just the last few years, we’ve seen her go on a successful run playing unhinged characters standing on the precipice. In Her Smell (2018) she is a self-destructive rock star, and The Invisible Man (2020) she is a victim of abuse whose grasp of reality is called into question.
In Shirley (2020), Moss takes on the persona of famed gothic-horror writer Shirley Jackson. And once again – despite playing yet another character suffering under tremendous strain – she is able to twist her approach so well that it becomes a work all unto itself. While the film (directed by Josephine Decker, screenplay by Sarah Gubbins) can be debated on how accurate it portrays the real life writer (it’s adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s book) that doesn’t lessen how effective Moss’ performance is. Here she is a ball of nervous energy, full of self-doubt and neurosis, and yet we can see underneath the intelligence and skill that made Jackson such a celebrated writer. Is this another example of the often used “troubled genius” story? Maybe. But when the genius is played by someone like Elisabeth Moss, it’s hard not to be drawn in.
We take a very specific look at Jackson’s time – along with her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) – living in New England in the 1960s. We see them through the perspective of young newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) as they are taken in by the Hyman’s to live. Fred has been hired to be Stanley’s teaching assistant at nearby Bennington College. While Rose has her own aspirations in academics, her recent pregnancy and the generosity of the Hyman’s makes it difficult to decline when Stanley asks (or more like “assigns”) her to help with the household chores. Reluctant at first, Rose slowly falls under Jackson’s spell, developing a kinship that is both volatile and supportive at the same time.
Decker’s directorial style takes an unconventional look at the creative process. At the time, Jackson is caught in the middle of writer’s block. She struggles trying to piece out the story to what would become Hangsaman, loosely inspired by the disappearance of local college student Paula Jean Welden (a true-life unsolved mystery). But it’s through her interactions with Rose that Jackson finds her creative spark. Visually, we see Jackson working the story out in her head – the image of an unknown woman (presumably Paula) walking through a forest. At first, the woman’s face is indecipherable, but as Jackson gains momentum in writing does it start to draw more clearly. Eventually, the face crystalizes to that of Rose.
The loose, fragmented, and almost abstract nature of the Jackson’s thought process is reflected in the narrative itself. The further into the story we go, the more spontaneous it starts to feel. Sturla Brandth Grovlen’s cinematography captures dinner conversations, late night parties, and small intimate exchanges with a disjointed feel. The edges of the frame start to blur, perhaps signifying Jackson’s increasing focus on her work and with Rose and disregard for pretty much everything else. We start losing our footing on what is actually happening and what is taking place in a dreamscape. It’s been said that an artist can “get lost” in their work, and maybe that’s what is happening here.
Despite the stream of consciousness design, Decker and the rest of the production never lose sight of character development. Through suggestion, we learn of the complicated dynamic between Jackson and Hyman – how his infidelity was known by her and yet the two continued to co-exist in a love/hate relationship. They seemed to take pleasure being miserable with one another. How they talk while sharing nefarious glances appears as though they are silently plotting their next master plan. This operates on a far higher level than the relationship between Rose and Fred, which is sadly the weakest aspect of the film. Their back and forth is relegated to brief episodes of love making contrasted with Rose’s increasing distrust of him. The more she learns about Shirley and Stanley, the more she transfers that feeling of unease upon her own marriage.
Shirley is not the easiest film to fall into. It requires patience and active participation. Coming in with some knowledge of the central character would help as well. Decker does not hold you by the hand throughout this – you must be willing to work with what she is doing. But if you want to see acting at its finest, you can’t get much better than what Elisabeth Moss does here. She has quietly become one of the best and most dependable actors working today. She’s as consistent as you can get, rarely (if ever) turning in a bad performance. It’s a gift to see a talented artist portray a talented artist.