Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Sundance Festival. Neon will release the film on VOD platforms on Friday, June 5.
When the news first broke that “Madeline’s Madeline” filmmaker Josephine Decker would be making a starry movie about the author Shirley Jackson, it was hard not to be disappointed (or at least caught by surprise) that one of the most feral, elastic, and vividly singular artists of contemporary American cinema was following her first masterpiece with something that might be classified as a biopic. Shudder. Speaking as one of Decker’s still-fervent devotees, the hope was that her next project would find her reaching deeper into her own mind instead of squeezing her immense talents into the architecture of someone else’s imagination, and the fear was that the financial demands of a period piece would constrain her uniquely generative creative process. “Madeline’s Madeline” is a film that’s inextricable from the story of its making — would a more traditional production, docked to a linear screenplay that Decker didn’t write, allow her the freedom that her febrile genius demands?
The answer is a wildly enthusiastic “sort of!” To begin with, “Shirley” is no more of a biopic than “Bright Star,” “An Angel at My Table,” or “Shakespeare in Love.” Adapted from the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name, Decker’s characteristically sawtoothed and delirious new film is set in the same latent space between fact and fantasy — a story and its telling — where she located all of her previous work. There are long passages and dark pockets of the movie in which you can feel Decker fighting the rigid structure of Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay to a stalemate, but also others in which the film’s relatively straightforward nature only makes it that much easier to appreciate how Decker is bending the walls to her will. As Jackson wrote in “The Haunting of Hill House”: “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.”
More to the point, the best elements of “Shirley” — its poisoned eros, its secrets in shallow focus, its steadfast determination to distill the “thrillingly horrible” process of a young woman’s self-awakening — conspire to embarrass the idea that Decker wouldn’t be able to explore her truth in someone else’s fiction. This is a film about the beating heart of friendship; about the seductive nature of exploitation; about the aesthetics of female visibility and the way that lost girls are liable to “lose their minds” in a man’s world where normalcy is its own kind of madness. By the time “Shirley” arrives at its tortured smile of an ending, it seems less a departure from “Madeline’s Madeline” than it does a spiritual prequel, or maybe a buttoned-up aunt.
The story takes place sometime after “The Lottery” has become the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker (it first ran in 1948, giving Jackson a 59-year head start on “Cat Person”). A girl named Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the shockingly dark fable on a train as it cuts a path north through New England foliage; she holds the magazine close to her chest like a secret. It turns her on: Rose grabs her husband (Logan Lerman) by the hand and eagerly blooms for him in the nearest bathroom. This would probably be a great time for Fred to start being curious about the woman he married, or at least to consider that she might have an inner life of some kind, but more urgent matters have fallen into his lap. Lerman is too honest and well-shaded an actor to play Fred as a villain, but his effectively clueless performance evokes a certain line from Jackson’s novel “Hangsaman”: “The gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable.” Rose is perfectly seamless in Fred’s mind.
But Fred hasn’t read “Hangsaman” because — among other reasons — that book hasn’t been written yet. Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) is just starting to wrestle with the idea for it when her husband Stanley (a bearded and barbarous Michael Stuhlbarg) invites the young couple to stay in their Vermont home near the university where Fred is set to work as his teaching assistant. It’s meant to be a temporary arrangement, but there’s enough dark energy in that house to wonder how the visitors might survive a single night. Rose’s first encounter with Shirley is a scary one, as Moss — comfortably inhabiting all sorts of haggard makeup that she wears like a layer of cobwebs — embodies the author as an irritable grandma who’s been cooped up for long enough to haunt her own house. Shirley hasn’t been outside in over two months; Stanley insists that she isn’t well enough. He depends on her genius, but treats it like a disorder. Anything not to feel threatened. Wait until he reads “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”
Most of the movie takes place in the musty bedrooms of that house, or around the dinner table, or along the thick mahogany staircase that seems like it was built in the hopes that someone might fall down it one day. But Sturla Brandth Gróvlen’s soft and woozy handheld cinematography helps clarify that all of the action is actually happening inside the minds of the people who live there, as the camera — in Decker’s usual style — blurs the background until each shot is cut with a subjective edge, and a sense of ancient menace collects around the most ordinary things. A group of girls playing on a tree suddenly reveals their hidden violence in a way that mocks us for not seeing it sooner. A missing persons flier is posted on a telephone pole like a treasure map to an invisible world. The more that Shirley and Rose become enamored with each other, the more the film begins to resemble Jackson’s writing.
The plot develops spottily, and at times it seems as if Decker isn’t sure just how clear to make the connection between Shirley meeting Rose and the gestating idea for “Hangsaman,” (the movie’s claustrophobia reflects its characters, but its ambivalence can feel forced upon them), but this isn’t a story that should be tracked through action so much as through the transference between two people. “There’s nothing fascinating about this girl except that she’s gone,” someone says about the vanished Paula Jean Welden, but Shirley — as a woman who’s all but disappeared from her own life — knows in her soul that isn’t true, even if she’s already abandoned herself beyond the point of salvation. Her fate is sealed, and there’s nothing Decker can do to change that.
Rose, however, has the power of fiction behind her. Her future is as eminently possible as a book that’s yet to be read, and Shirley takes it upon herself to write it. Their relationship is that between an author and their audience, and Young’s open-faced performance reflects Moss’ curious hostility back at her in a way that makes both women more visible to each other and themselves. That strange process isn’t always a smooth one, as stops and starts abound and “Shirley” is often suffocated by Stanley’s toxic energy to the point where even the sweetest moments can be repellently sour, but why shouldn’t they be? This is no simple portrait of empowerment (as the uncertain final shots make clear), but rather a porous tale of two women who break each other down until they’re nothing but the purest bits of themselves. They crumble until they’re small enough to slip between literature and real life; small enough not to be scared of anything but themselves; small enough to fit through the cracks that Decker finds in the foundation of that house. Only then can they begin to build themselves into something new.
“Shirley” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.