For some, the name Shirley Jackson will evoke supernatural horrors—unseen ghosts and poltergeists sowing chaos as in her famous novel “The Haunting of Hill House.” For others, her name is synonymous with a different type of horror as demonstrated in “The Lottery”, an at-first innocent tale of suburbia that culminates in a brutal and barbaric ritual, and other stories featuring agoraphobic protagonists who hate socializing at small-town parties or lonely college freshmen who lose their sanity on campus—it is the type of horror, in short, that details the underlying strains and malevolence that lurks beneath the surface of an average, middle-class, normal, seemingly comfortable style of life.
“Shirley” is an acute expression of that latter variety of horror. To clarify, this is not a biopic of Shirley Jackson, but rather her complex personage is used as a centerpiece for a Jackson-inspired story. The set-up and story, eerily reminiscent of the classic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, centers on Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) taking in a young couple—Fred (Logan Lerman), an eager TA hired to help Stanley with his lectures, and his wife Rose (Odessa Young), an aspiring student who is forced to care, as a maid essentially, for the mentally unstable Jackson—and details all of the conflicts that result from their various interactions, with many of them stemming from Jackson, whose various phobias and undiagnosed mental problems exhaust everybody.
First, it must be said that the male characters are bland and dull, which is perhaps a purposeful expression of their own mediocrity and lack of genius, two characteristics that seem to be recognized by the characters themselves, in spite of their womanizing and academic verbosity (which on reflection might be manifestations of their self-recognition). Indeed, it is the women that are the captivating core of the story.
Jackson especially steals the show: the tortured and fragile yet perceptive and powerful genius and her rejection of small-town socializing and hubristic moralizing of suburban women make her one of the most intriguing characters put on the screen year this year. Immense praise ought to be in store for Elisabeth Moss, who, with her frizzled mop of hair, diamond glasses, and insouciant frumpiness, is a dead-ringer for Jackson. Moss endows her performance with great range in flitting instantaneously between emotional extremes. At times a domineering bully with a proclivity for casual malevolence and at others a coddling dependent rendered pitifully foolish, Moss encapsulates the at-times microscopic thread separating sanity from insanity. The result is that whenever she enters the frame, the scene is automatically suffused with an anticipatory anxiety at whatever she might deign to say or do next.
As interesting as Jackson on her own is, however, the true power of the movie lies in the central relationship between Jackson and Rose. It is engrossing because of its instability, the constant changing of roles and the fact that the characters never ground themselves in relation to one another. At first, this is mainly due to Jackson’s mood swings, but soon Rose herself evolves into a catalyst for role reversals, with questions of her sanity and identity arising as she becomes gradually more implicated in the author’s manic methodology of writing her novel, which involves investigating the disappearance of an actual college girl. As a result, the nature of the pairing is in constant flux, an everchanging arrangement: they could be the bully and the victim, the helpless patient and the caring nurse, the inspiring muse and the inspired artist, and even two seductresses in a brief dalliance characterized by libidinous eroticism.
Ably compounding the unease stemming from the central relationship are the film’s stylistics. The music, scored by Tamar-kali, is appropriately eerie and punctuated by random, sharp bursts of piercing violin, representing perfectly the notion that at any time something could snap and go wrong. The cinematography of the daydreaming sequences is kaleidoscopic and hallucinatory in its fragmented depiction of unreality. Often, the point of interest will be in focus while all of the surrounding details will be blurry and manipulated into a vibrant mixture of color and light. Sometimes, the opposite prevails: the point of interest, such as the face of a girl, will be blurred out while the rest of the shot is crystal clear. Even when the film is documenting supposed reality, the style matches the tone of the story. Often engaging in mobile close-ups and having a slightly shaky quality, almost like it is hand-held, the cinematography encapsulates the instability, that sense of nothing ever really being able to settle down, that permeates the picture.
Yet, despite the film’s excellent stylistics and the engrossing nature of the central pairing, it does lack the analytical edge to push it over the top. Even Shirley Jackson’s stories like “The Lottery”, which is seemingly open to an infinite number of interpretations, have an underlying idea regarding society, politics, or any other manifestation of the human condition (in “The Lottery” it is, to put in a literarily clichéd manner, the heart of darkness that beats beneath all men, veneer of civilization present or absent). In “Shirley”, the potential sources for analysis—e.g., the hypocritical morals of small-town life, the subsumption of identity, etc.—are not expounded upon enough to yield anything really worth thinking about. They are mere surface-level addendums to the story, not legitimate thematic thrusts, a fact that unfortunately prevents the movie from being truly amazing.