Shirley is a semi-fictional film about Shirley Jackson, the acclaimed horror author behind The Haunting of Hill House. It’s based on a 2014 novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, a writer and academic who never met Jackson before her death in 1965. The movie adaptation was written by Sarah Gubbins, the co-creator of I Love Dick, a show about a woman’s unquenchable sexual desire. It was directed by Josephine Decker, a prodigious artist who blurred the line between cinema and interpretive dance with her previous film Madeline’s Madeline. Meld those minds together and three results are practically inevitable: metatextuality, femininity, and originality.
Unsurprisingly, Shirley has all three in spades. The story follows the fictional Rose Nemser, who moves in with the real Shirley Jackson after their husbands strike a partnership at the nearby university. With the men off teaching jazz criticism or something, Rose lands the role of Shirley’s caretaker, at first to her displeasure—Shirley is an acerbic, isolated woman who hurls insults and provocation through puffs of cigarette smoke, sick in the body and sicker in the mind. Shirley’s husband, though amusingly extroverted on the surface, is no better company: he’s sadistic, handsy, and jealous, but Shirley relies on him to keep her just healthy enough to survive and just hateful enough to write. Toxic, yes, but potent—pungent enough to inflame Rose’s nostrils and drive her to the source of the smell.
Narratively, Shirley finds Rose growing closer to the eponymous writer and drifting away from her husband, all while Shirley uses Rose as inspiration for her next book. But director Josephine Decker is a formalist, as demonstrated by her quasi-performance art Madeline’s Madeline, so the story isn’t as important as how it’s told. And it’s told like nothing you’ve seen before: Shirley is a lurching, spasmodic work, disorienting its audience with swiveling camerawork, lighting that casts shadows like wet ink, and editing that seems to prioritize the soundscape over a stable visual language—like we’re in the eyes of a person frantically trying to see who’s whispering about them in a crowd. Decker’s control over this explosion of style is a marvel. When she’s disorienting, she’s engrossing; and when she orients us, she takes our breath away. Shirley’s most stunning moments come when the camera stays still and the voices quiet down, just for a second or two. It’s in those pauses that thematic mics are dropped, usually accompanied by a masterstroke of visual composition burning itself into your brain. Decker has formally rendered the writer’s epiphany: to watch Shirley is to undergo the cycle of bewilderment and realization, the latter never so liberating without the former.
Elizabeth Moss, bearing a striking resemblance to Shirley Jackson in her later years, has her fingers on the keys of Decker’s vision. Her performance recalls the soliloquizing of Her Smell—like in that movie, Moss excels at clarifying complex dialogue through her tone and body language—but the writing is more curt and coded. There are times when her performance broadens, eliciting historic portrayals of “hysterical” women in general, but it becomes clear that losing her version of Shirley Jackson to the yellow-wallpapered amalgam is precisely the point—or, rather, one of the points. Shirley can be read on a multitude of levels. This is a movie based on a book about an author and her book, after all.
One interpretation, concerning the aforementioned use of Shirley as an icon for tortured women, is a little at odds with the movie’s experimental prowess, as it’s comparatively heavy-handed. Even amid the measured chaos of Shirley, it’s easy to predict where that thread is going, like when you can single out and focus on a fan blade at high speed. There’s so much to chew on here, though, that this predictability barely registers before the final scene.
Truly, so much of Shirley is exceptional and of its own kind that dwelling on drawbacks feels disingenuous. It’s too tense in the moment to even keep those thoughts in your head. Speaking of, there’s one more woman to spotlight: Tamar-kali, the composer of Shirley’s score, perhaps its most tense element. Tamar-kali’s music makes Shirley’s house as haunted as her ghost stories. That, like the outstanding movie around it, is quite a feat.