Early on in Shirley, the new film from director Josephine Decker based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s book of the same name, the young Rose (Odessa Young) wonders at her reflections in a double-mirrored train bathroom, the camera switching between her and her likeness. Later, the older Shirley (Elizabeth Moss) sits in her bathroom, and we watch her mirror image scribble in a notebook before panning over to her actual self. These moments of fractured identity come to define the film, in more ways than one. As the story blends together the inner and outer lives of the two women, it becomes difficult to parse daydream from reality— or to delineate the dreamers. Thematically, Decker also splits her movie in two, though one strand ultimately proves more rewarding than the other.
Shirley tells a fictionalized account of how acclaimed horror author Shirley Jackson wrote her 1951 novel Hangsaman, inspired by the real disappearance of Bennington College student Paula Jean Walden. In this telling, Shirley and her professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), take in Rose and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) as the latter settles into a new teaching assistant job with Stanley. A temporary stay begins to stretch when Rose is asked to manage the house while Shirley writes, and as the two grow steadily closer, the writer decides to base her version of the missing Paula on her young guest. What follows is a challenging viewing experience, as Decker resists conventional, comfortable storytelling and leaves it to us to weave through a narrative that reflects the characters’ unstable minds.
While eschewing the tired biopic formula is admirable in theory, I found Shirley inconsistently rewarding in execution. For as much as it makes identity a centerpiece, the film offers little in the way of character study, rendering the blurred-reality approach more frustrating than compelling. The scenes devoted to gender dynamics feel far more engaging, making the most of Moss and Stuhlbarg’s excellent performances to illustrate how the politics of marriage allow mediocre men to diminish their obviously better halves. Leaning further into this thematic thread, and away from the psycho-drama, would have made for a stronger work overall, but just committing to reading the movie through this lens opens up interesting avenues for interpretation.
That said, Decker’s film is still obviously superior to, say, Trank’s similarly dissociative Capone, flashing moments of filmmaking brilliance. My personal favorite remains the introduction of Shirley’s creative process, depicted as a series of mental images that sometimes override her experience of reality. Reading through newspaper clippings describing Paula’s disappearance, she can picture her heroine’s clothing before her appearance and imagines Paula with a blurred face. When she first latches onto Rose as inspiration, the red-cloaked Paula suddenly wears Rose’s face, and from then on it becomes difficult for us to tell the real woman apart from Shirley’s developing fiction. These innovative moments are sprinkled throughout Shirley and speak to the strength of Decker’s directorial vision, which earned her a Special Jury Award for Auteur Filmmaking at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Along with its other strengths, these flourishes make the film worthy viewing for audiences that enjoy challenging cinema— but it doesn’t quite offer enough payoff to convert the uninclined.
Shirley is available for rental here and on Hulu.