Movie goers are often frightened by things that aren’t real – clowns with red balloons living in the sewers, killers that strike in dreams with a bladed claw, vampires, mummies and witches.
But in a simpler, yet somehow more complex way, it’s the things that are plausibly realistic and feel authentic to our own lives that prove to be the greater terror.
While major studios spend large stacks of cash on increasingly bombastic thrills and chills, smaller independent filmmakers find an unsettling world in more intimate settings where tension builds in close quarters and psychologically rather than physically.
Based loosely on the life of Gothic novelist Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker’s latest film peers into the 1950s world of Jackson and her husband, a prominent college professor, as they play host to a recently married young couple. As Shirley and Rose grow closer, the newlywed becomes entranced in Shirley’s writing methods in a film that melds fantasy and reality.
Elisabeth Moss plays Shirley with an erratic blend of manic episodes, lucid calm and measured maliciousness that provides the entire film with a center point on which to twist and turn its allegorical, fantastical tale.
Even in moments when Shirley cannot bring herself to move an inch, Moss is mesmerizing to behold on screen, captivating the audience into a trance with her distant, glossy stare into nothing.
It’s such a multifaceted, layered performance that it almost feels as if Moss is revealing Shirley to viewers like peeling an onion.
Newcomer Odessa Young is equally as entrancing with an ingénue performance as Rose that slowly turns towards a maddening cynicism as her naivety to the world around her is stripped away.
As Shirley begins to envision Rose as Paula, the protagonist in the novel she’s writing, Young steps into that role as well, blurring the lines between the reality of the film and an imagined desperation that led to Paula’s death.
Young is able to capture both Rose and Paula with subtle flourishes that might indicate to the viewer which of the two audiences are seeing, but the differences Young plays with are so minute that viewers’ reality becomes warped in scenes that become increasingly melancholic psychological warfare played on the characters and the audience themselves.
The men of “Shirley” take a relative backseat to Shirley and Rose’s ever-changing friendship, although veteran character actor Michael Stuhlbarg turns in a wonderfully devious performance as Shirley’s calculating husband Stanley.
Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins adapt Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel “Shirley: A Novel” with the same tension and dread that one might find in Jackson’s writing.
Expertly written with memorable, dry dialogue, it’s a treatise on rebellion from traditional gender roles for women at the time and nihilism on a woman’s lack of standing in regard to her spouse and her peers.
Moss and Young dance a delicate balance between all the overt and subversive themes that plague both Shirley and Rose which draw them together as unlikely kin, but it’s never aggressive or over-the-top. The terror comes from the inevitability of events and the horrors of everyday life and both actresses ease into the tension naturally that gives “Shirley” an authentic feel despite the film’s largely fictionalized story.
“Shirley” is just as eccentric and temperamental a film as its title character, fervently mixing its tones, plot structure and character development to elude, captivate and intrigue its audience.
A horror tragedy where real life holds the terror rather than jump scares, “Shirley” commands attention from the first frame with its subtle, haunting demeanor.
Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen keep the film increasingly askew visually by orienting the frame just left or right of center on the actor – thus shattering the rule of thirds – or twisting the camera as if the viewer were looking at the action with a tilted head. This also extends to the wide and varied use of closeups, which never feel cohesive or identical from use to use and often feel a bit too personal, just as Shirley does with her houseguests.
Although loosened qualifications due to the coronavirus pandemic does make it eligible for Oscar consideration, “Shirley” will likely be too avant-garde for Academy voters and just in the right wheelhouse for critics’ groups and the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where Moss will be a frontrunner for Best Actress among Picture, writing and directorial nominations for the film as a whole.
An audacious and captivating independent arthouse mystery drama, “Shirley” won’t sit well with many potential audiences but for those wanting more of Moss’ terrific work in genre films like “The Invisible Man” or “Her Smell” will find “Shirley” an alluring, thrillingly horrible feature they just can’t turn away from.