By David Canfield
January 26, 2020 at 10:47 AM EST

Biopics of literary icons rarely inspire the most adventurous of filmmaking, but then again, the genre had never met Josephine Decker. The innovative director behind last year’s Madeline’s Madeline, known for her blurry and fragmentary approach to narrative, takes on horror author Shirley Jackson in her delirious new film. The eponymous title feels appropriate: Shirley isn’t just about its namesake, after all; it’s wholly of her, consumed by her legacy, aesthetic, and mystery.

Working from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, Decker and scribe Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick) find for their fictionalized Jackson a tale steeped in psychosexual tension and manipulation, bringing two married couples (one middle-aged and bitter, the other young and wide-eyed) under the same roof, and watching what happens, scene by wild scene. Think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but queerer and weirder.

Thatcher Keats/Sundance Institute

This, by Decker’s singular standards, is an accessible movie. And while hardly a broad commercial play, emerging out of Sundance with good buzz, it’s yet another magnificent starring vehicle for Elisabeth Moss, who continues to balance her Emmy-winning Handmaid’s Tale work with ambitious, involving indies (like last year’s Her Smell). In Shirley Jackson, the actress veers from grumpy to menacing to touching, turning in what may be her best — and is surely her wittiest — film performance to date.

As we meet Shirley, lost to madness while working through a new piece of writing — she’s recently published her controversial 1948 story “The Lottery” — she can barely get out of bed. She hasn’t left her home in two months. She’s obsessed by the story of a vanished young woman, while battling intense writer’s block at the same time. Her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington College (where they live in Vermont), seems to enable her witchy state, and cheats on her, as part of what’s revealed to be an unusual intellectual-romantic arrangement. Their bizarre dynamic goes under a spotlight, however, when they open their home up to another couple: Fred (Logan Lerman), Stanley’s new teaching assistant, and his pregnant wife, Rose (Odessa Young).

True to mercurial form, Shirley is energized by the young couple’s arrival. She barks orders, throws things across rooms, forces uncomfortable topics at the dinner table — sometimes with a sly smile, others with a terrifying frown, occasionally both. But as Fred falls deeper into academic life, Rose resists the domestic trappings of her current situation, drawn as she is to Shirley’s brilliant work and toxic process. (The movie’s very first scene, tellingly, tracks Rose as she’s turned on while reading “The Lottery” in The New Yorker on the way to meet Shirley and Stanley.) Shirley resists Rose’s interest at first, but then draws her into her web, hurtling the film in fascinating if confounding directions.

The plot, admittedly, is scattered; this is par for the course for Decker, but in a movie with more conventional bones, the shagginess sticks out. Shirley gorgeously invokes its subject’s style, however, via a disarmingly off-kilter score; handheld camerawork that gets intimate with characters’ psyches; and, most strikingly, a series of unforgettable images that intensify this study of female awakening and decay. An early shot of a depressed Shirley splayed out on her bed, cigarette in hand, proves richer and more evocative than anything a script could conjure; a sequence involving Rose and mud (we’ll leave it at that) marks the movie at its most elliptically erotic.

The bond between Shirley and Rose, evolving inside the home as their men lead very different lives beyond those walls,  provokes tough conversations about women and creativity and lust. Look deeper and there’s a meta story here about the relationship between author and reader, too: Shirley delves into a potential novel about the missing girl with the help of Rose’s research, and develops a fascination with the notion of disappearing from life, one rooted in her own experience. Her perspective nudges Rose toward a particular, unsettling path.

This can be tricky territory to navigate for the viewer, given the internality of the drama. And things hardly get simpler as Decker works toward her darkly twisty conclusion, confronting what (maybe) happens once Shirley and Rose’s partnership of sorts can no longer be sustained, and life must go on as it had gone on before — if that’s even possible. But with one last perfectly nasty smirk from Moss, Shirley lures you back into the frenzy, a play of wits and deception where the game isn’t victory or even solace, really, but a state of survival that feels dementedly, horrifically true. B+

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