Watching Josephine Decker’s drama/thriller Shirley, we begin to wonder if this story even needs to be told. The premise isn’t one we haven’t seen, and the stylization isn’t exactly unique. But as the story approaches the ending, we slowly begin to realize how, in fact, it’s quite different.
Based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s semi-biographical novel Shirley focuses on real life horror novelist Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) as she and her professor husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), house a younger couple, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), in their Vermont estate. Fred is an associate professor at the university where Stanley teaches.
The maid recently quit and Shirley can’t tend to their house, despite not leaving it in weeks and being in-between novels. Stanley has the idea for Rose to take care of things like cooking, cleaning, and looking after his wife, who doesn’t seem to be all there in the head. Early on there is tension between the two women, but eventually they form a bond and find a solace in each other’s loneliness. Shirley is trying to find inspiration for her new book, inspired from a recently missing college student, Paula, whom she’s lumped together with Rose. As Rose becomes closer with Shirley, her marriage with Fred gets rockier.
Shirley isn’t necessarily a likable character, but she’s not despicable either. Our feelings about her change according to how Rose sees her, in many ways this makes her the audience surrogate. The real monster here ends up being Stanley, who’s manipulative, creepy, and definitely a sexual predator.
The film dips in and out of the mystery surrounding Paula’s disappearance. For a small chunk, Shirley and Rose excitingly begin to unravel certain details surrounding what happened to her, but we never get any follow up. Decker, who directs the film, shows brief moments where Rose and Paula are the same person, but we’re unsure if this is Rose or Shirley having these hallucinations. We have two protagonists, so the answer isn’t clear. At times it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s almost real, which can be frustrating if we’re never guaranteed that clarity.
Moss is the main focus here. Shirley is unpredictable, yet she’s not. She’s mercurial, yet she’s not. Moss’ performance lives and dies by how effective her character is and the inability for us to lock her down is a strength. Although the actress doesn’t necessarily nail every line, Shirley is such an odd personality that maybe she does and we just don’t realize it. There are moments where we feel like she’s playing her dialogue for laughs, but perhaps that’s just the manic nature of the character. Her performance grows on us and she becomes easier to believe the more we understand the character. Moss’ intensity is never milked or exploited as Oscar bait, instead she shows her range without needing to go over the top.
All four leads do a really good job, but the real star here is Odessa Young, who hits her performance out of the park. She plays so well off each actor that we don’t bother to wonder if her part was even written that way. However, she won’t be nearly as memorable as Moss, who benefits from having a weirder character.
Unfortunately, the film relies heavily on the conflict/relationship between Rose and Shirley. We aren’t only invested in Shirley since we aren’t quite sure what she has to gain or lose in this story. She needs to finish her new novel, sure, but what are the stakes if she doesn’t? Rose and her husband appear to have a cordial relationship prior to moving into this new town, so our “likable” title character is messing with all of this to help her write her book? I don’t buy it.
We do finally get something of an answer in the final scene, but this big “twist” isn’t made to be as much of a deal as it should be. In fact, blink and you might miss it, which is unfortunate since it’s actually quite good in theory.
Shirley is never boring, but plotting is spread so far out that we become irritable about where this is all going. There are fine performances all around, Moss and Young in particular, though Decker never quite goes all-in on the creepy atmosphere and the payoff isn’t played up as much as it ought to be. The director plants some sneaky symbolism we may not catch the first time around, but makes it hard to distinguish if the film is supposed to be a mystery, a thriller, or a drama, unable to commit to any genre when it really shouldn’t be that difficult – the pieces are all there.