Shirley Jackson is highly regarded in the literary community, but it’s entirely possible that you haven’t heard her name since middle school. The phrase “The Lottery” is probably enough to spark an “oh yeah!” in your mind, as are several other of her iconic tales.
But you don’t really see Jackson portrayed all that often in media: and there’s a reason for that. As it turns out she’s a very complicated individual that requires a lot of nuances to get right. Elizabeth Moss is up to the task in Shirley, even if many more facets of the film aren’t.
The concept is Shirley is easy enough to get across, but it quickly evolves from there. Moss is Shirley Jackson, the aforementioned troubled author, and Michael Stuhlbarg is Stanley Edgar Hyman: her husband. Together these two highly underrated real-life players are a professional power couple, having honed their craft for many years; ready for the spotlight. Watching them interact and bicker is a sight, which you’ll witness often, as Shirley’s framework is akin to a dishevelled play.
The best way to describe the vibe of Shirley is a “slow burn of uneasiness.” A young vibrant couple (almost comedically so) are invited into the jaded Jackson household through an academic connection via Hyman, and the two couples are off to the races. As we see Shirley deteriorate we witness the unhinged cruelty of the Jackson household, which is met in turn by Odessa Young’s Rose and Logan Lerman’s Fred.
The core problem is that it really is tough to keep up with Moss. Stuhlbarg gets several scenery-chewing displays, but the quiet rage and sorrow of Moss helps the film set the desired tone. Odessa Young meets that energy as best she can, but Lerman feels left in the dust: in part due to the lack of development for his character.
It’s a very strange movie as not much happens (which is fine), insomuch as themes a higher priority. Motherhood. Womanhood. “Traditional” relationship values. All are scattered across a giant canvas and handled with varying levels of grace (with a healthy dose of surrealism) for nearly two hours. In the end, Shirley has very little new to say about all of it: which would be to the chagrin of Hyman’s character, who criticizes roteness repeatedly throughout the film.
Shirley is a very hard movie to recommend, despite my enjoyment of it. It’s not a strict drama, nor is it a horror film or even a straight suspense-filled thriller. Instead, it’s a hodgepodge of all of the above, with a dash of relationship commentary thrown in. We get to see these two couples live through decades together in a matter of days, scrunched down for our viewing pleasure. It has its moments, and those moments are impactful enough to elevate the film.