Elisabeth Moss is chilling and manipulative in psychological spellbinder ‘Shirley’

Biopics about literary authors aren’t known for inspiring the most creative of filmmaking. Telling the life of a literary great; the struggles, tragic love stories, and  success and failures doesn’t create three-dimensional storytelling. Director Josephine Decker’s take on horror author Shirley Jackson is something completely different for the genre.

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Famous horror writer, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), finds inspiration for her next novel after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins finds their fictionalized Shirley in a tale steeped in manipulation and psychosexual tension. Watching the two couples (one middle-aged and bitter, the other young and in love) live together under the same roof and watching what happens is disturbing, but entertaining, scene by wild scene. Think of this as a weirder version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It’s an enjoyable starring vehicle film for Elisabeth Moss, balancing her Emmy-winning work with The Handmaiden’s Tale with ambitious, involving indies such as The One I Love and smart big-budget movies like The Invisible Man. In Shirley, we find the author loss in madness while working on a new novel, depressed to try and follow up on her recent story, “The Lottery”.  Her husband, Stanley (Michael Stulbarg), a professor at Bennington College seems to enable her menacing nature while having an affair. Their dynamic is under watchful scrutiny when they open their home to a young couple: Stanley’s teaching assistant, Fred (Logan Lerman), and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young). Jackson is already obsessed with a local story by a vanishing young woman and with this new couple, it helps a story take shape as she also become entwined in the lives of her house guests. Moss veers her character from grumpy to menacing to touching, turning in her potentially best film performance to day.

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The plot is a little scattered, but what could you expect in a biopic? Shirley gorgeously invokes its subject’s style with a disarming score to match the psychological tone; handheld camerawork that allows the audience to get intimate with characters’ psyches; and a series of unforgettable images that shows female awakening and decay over time. The relationship between Shirley and Rose, which evolves during the film as the men lead very different lives behind those walls, opens the tough conversations about women and creativity. Shirley nudges Rose towards an unsettling path while working to finish her new novel.

Just when you think the craziness is over and Shirley’s relationship with Rose can no longer be sustained, a last, nasty smirk from Moss lures the audience back into the play of wits and deception, where the game isn’t about victory, but a state of survival in an evolving world of discovery.

As theaters continue to combat the Coronavirus that have brought the industry to a screeching halt and slowly beginning to restart, big budget and indie films have found homes on streaming services. It’s good that Shirley found a home on Hulu.

What are your thoughts on Shirley? Do you think this movie was better suited for Hulu rather than a short theaters? Hopefully you all give this movie a chance!

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