Writing, as represented in pop culture, is often shown in one of two ways, both a fantasy. It is either a lucrative vocation that affords free spirits a comfortable lifestyle where they are as relaxed or important as they like; or it is Serious Business, the purview of difficult but unquestionably great people. These are myths, and try as writers might to undo the damage, the myths persist because they are perpetuated by the same type of people, often about the same type of people: men, usually white, typically straight, always troubled. In Shirley, the new film out from director Josephine Decker, that archetype is transposed to a woman and given new, unsettling meaning. In Shirley, writing is perhaps neither honorable nor terribly important. What it might ultimately be is corrosive.
Based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley is a fictionalized take on the life of acclaimed writer Shirley Jackson. The film carves out a window into the reclusive author’s life by way of Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), a young woman who has taken up residence in Jackson’s home with her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman). Fred is there to assist Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Jackson’s husband, in his research work at the local university. Rose, despite having ambitions of her own, is roped into becoming a de facto live-in maid.
This is frustrating for Rose but she concedes, due to pressure from her husband, the allure of free room and board, and because of the proximity it affords her to a writer she admires. Jackson herself (Elisabeth Moss) does not particularly care for that proximity — it’s tough to say that she cares for anything.
Shirley takes place at the start of Jackson’s ascent to literary prominence. The film introduces us to the reclusive writer shortly after the publication of her 1948 short story “The Lottery” in The New Yorker — a controversial work that, at the time, had garnered the most mail over a single work of fiction in the magazine’s existence. When Rose arrives with her husband, Jackson is about to begin the difficult work of following it up, grasping at the beginnings of what will become her second novel, Hangsaman.
What follows becomes a strange hybrid of psychodrama and avant-garde art film, as Rose slowly loses herself to Jackson’s needs and eventually, as Jackson lets Rose in, her story. Together the two become obsessed with the tale of Paula Jean Weldon, an 18-year-old woman who set out for a long walk one December night and never returned. As Shirley goes on, Rose’s real life and the vestiges of Paula’s are both broken down as fodder for Jackson’s creation, indistinguishable from one another and transformed by the surly misanthrope and her typewriter.
In Shirley, relationships are parasitic, and writing is the medium through which people live off one another. Jackson writes for no one but her husband’s approval; Hyman labors in his research, but it is primarily an avenue for satisfying his sexual appetite; Fred Nemser, desperate for approval and standing, dispenses with forming any real identity in favor of inoffensive, sycophantic work. The film’s greatest mystery is not what happened to Paula Weldon that winter night, but whether Rose is more herself or less so when Shirley Jackson is done with her.
Shirley spreads in your mind like an itch you can’t scratch, a tingling that feels a little off until it becomes something deep in your tissue. The movie is gorgeously shot but also suffocating; light either comes in at night or a midday haze, and no one ever has enough room to appear comfortable. Dream sequences abruptly appear after naturalistic ones, and the performances are all abrasive and off-putting without ever losing a sense of intent. Elisabeth Moss is the highlight in the title role, but all of the central four actors give performances that seep into the walls of the house in which they spend most of their time. Perhaps they’re people when you meet them, but they feel like old ghosts when the film is over.