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'Shirley' Review: Elisabeth Moss powers bewitching psychological drama about an author and her muse

Josephine Decker's story about the 20th century writer is anything but a traditional biopic.
Credit: Neon

When Elisabeth Moss’s Shirley Jackson tells a living room full of fans that the next thing her character is writing is “a little novella I’m calling ‘None of Your Goddamn Business’” – coating the jab with delicious acidity – you can practically feeling yourself strapping in for another exhilarating performance from the exhilarating 37-year-old actress. As with “The Invisible Man” earlier this year, “Her Smell” last year and numerous other turns in the last decade, Moss delivers—in the way she leers and silently searches without ever betraying what’s going on behind her eyes. But she isn’t the only one cloaking hidden intentions. 

In Josephine Decker’s beguiling, sexy and strange new movie, “Shirley” – about the famous 20th mystery author, and also much, much more – devilishness is a siren song. Sidestepping traditional biopic conventions, the movie is more invested in insight than fact; while “Shirley’s” narrative contours will be much clearer to the audience than Decker’s last movie, 2018’s triumphant “Madeline’s Madeline,” intentions are no less difficult to decipher (and the endeavor is no less intoxicating). Moss’s acting ability becomes more than just sheer attraction for a movie that fashions itself a thriller before taking on the trappings of psychosexual drama in a story of muse and artist, although the tale is less “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and more akin to something Edgar Allen Poe would have dreamt up.  

Moss’s Shirley is first peeked at between a mass of bodies at the aforementioned party through the eyes of Rose (Odessa Young), a young fan who will serve, for a time, as audience proxy. The movie’s first minutes see Rose and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman, the cast's weaker link), making love in a train lavatory after she has finished reading Shirley latest short fiction, “The Lottery,” an early suggestion of the idea of art-as-enchantment that the movie will frequently return to. Later catching up with the author – who takes pride in having written “the most vile story the New Yorker has ever published” – Rose, in a half-confession, tells Shirley that “The Lottery” made her feel “thrillingly horrible.” 

What Shirley thinks about the review, we can’t say; her response is a blank stare that could be satisfaction or dismissal. She continues up to bed, Rose is left wondering. That push-and-pull between the two women (and their spouses) will go on to take center stage as Rose and Fred are temporarily taken in by Shirley and her string-pulling husband/professor/critic Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg, as good as ever) as temporary wards in a house filled with low lighting and cluttered spaces. There’s a hint of domestic disconnect as the latter makes the request of the young couple (“She’s not well,” he says, implying recurring troubles), further heightening a sense of things going quietly astray. One couple’s passions are born out in the bedroom, the other in respectful provocation, and it’s through that juxtaposition that Decker and the movie’s scribe, Sarah Gubbins, suggest a relationship between originality, liberation and self-destruction. 

The film progresses largely through the tête-à-têtes between Shirley and Rose, who grow closer through equal measures of repulsion and perverse fondness. At face value, the frazzled writer – her hair messy and eyes looking as if she’s slept 10 hours in a month – is seeking inspiration for a novel, and looking to Rose to help her find it while she refrains from leaving the house and lobs around playful insults. For a time, it feels like “Shirley” will be content with exploring one question: How can its title character can be so brilliant at the typewriter when she can barely get out of bed? The same can be asked of Fred, a literary student, and Stanley, who are engaged in their own struggle for self-respect that toes the line between empowerment and opposition. 

Eventually, though – and sneakily, under the cover of parallel narratives and an enthusiasm for marrying themes with aesthetic oddity – Decker and Gubbins slowly reveal new folds to these crisscrossing relationships that constantly force us to adjust how we’re examining the whole. “Shirley” can be a frustrating watch for the viewer who would always rather remain multiple steps ahead of a movie’s characters, but one thing Decker’s drama can’t be called is unengaging. 

This is largely a single-location story, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing; like “Madeline’s Madeline,” “Shirley” derives pleasure from unnerving close-ups so intimate that the camera (manned by Norwegian cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) begins to resemble a lobotomy tool, ready to plunge directly into characters’ heads. The effect: Sometimes it feels like we may be, as if Shirley and Stanley’s home has become a battlefield constructed of cosmic and microscopic dimensions. At times, Shirley’s narration of a work-in-progress begins to feel like she’s narrating her own reality. The mysterious dialogue of Gubbin’s excellent screenplay feels just as multi-purpose, especially when uttered by Shirley and Stanley, who speak in tongues you might call archaic. In some scenes, the edges of the frame seem to bleed out and take on a feathery look. There’s a spontaneity to the editing that demands you to keep up with it.

Credit: Neon

This is all very intentional. There are filmmakers who make their plots into puzzles – think of the most house-of-cards segments of a Christopher Nolan adventure or the time-warping antics of the last “Avengers” episode – and then there’s the 39-year-old Decker, who here attempts to synergize emotional context and plot development into a mosaic of hazy, bewitching filmmaking. The film’s most memorable sentiment is how none of its four protagonists – equal in their potential for secrecy, if not in screen time – are ever fully in control. And neither is the audience. As we watch Shirley and Rose gain clarity while losing some part of themselves, “Shirley” suggests that the goal of compromise can be just as strong, if not stronger, than compromise itself—it can even result in something life-defining.  

The movie is confounding because its characters and ideas are so confounding, but “Shirley” isn’t obfuscating the details for the sake of it. Decker manages to make it feel like she’s searching just as much as we are. Having a formidable actress like Moss doesn’t only make the journey more deliriously engrossing, but it grants Decker and Gubbins access to another – perhaps a premiere – tool for excavating Shirley Jackson’s mind, while also encouraging the viewer to examine our own movie-watching objectives. It’s easy to decide to get lost in Moss’s performance as a seemingly unhinged personality who can lash out or comfort at any given moment. It’s another thing entirely (and it speaks to how fantastic Moss is here) that “Shirley” traps us in it. 

"Shirley" is rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images. It will be streaming via virtual cinema options starting Friday. 

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young

Directed by Josephine Decker