Shirley is an unsettling, decidedly unconventional biopic of famed horror and mystery author Shirley Jackson. Madeline’s Madeline director Josephine Decker is less concerned with historical retelling than she is with capturing the essence of the American writer, as she goes on blurring the line between fantasy and reality. Based on the novel from Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley explores an imagined period of Jackson’s life when a younger couple moved in with her and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) strikes up a peculiar relationship with the young woman Rose (Odessa Young); at times apathetic, intimate, or abusive, their exchanges might leave your head spinning, but they also work to weave a rich and complicated portrait of the author. Young, in particular, gives a fearless performance as she shifts between personas, taking on the roles of dutiful wife, trusted confidante, lover, rival, and mentee, all the while coaxing out a guarded vulnerability in Shirley.
Decker’s film is a strange construction, though appropriately so given its subject and Moss’ hypnotic screen presence. At its core, Shirley is about power. Though much of the runtime is spent trapped within the four walls of Shirley’s house, the ever-shifting balance of power keeps the story taut and tensions high as characters wrestle for control. It is endlessly uncomfortable, keeping the audience off-kilter through the sheer power of Shirley’s central performances and its unpredictable direction. The essences of a psycho-sexual thriller, a feminist drama, and a supernatural horror are effectively blended together to create one fiercely subversive study of Shirley Jackson, with truly fantastic performances from Moss and Young.