Horror novelist Shirley Jackson’s prolific writing career resulted in more than 200 short stories and six novels in the span of just two decades, and that output made her one of the most revered authors of the 20th century. However, judging by Josephine Decker’s wildly unconventional biopic, Shirley, it’s a wonder Jackson was able to get anything done in the first place. Although her work would eventually serve as a touchstone for such celebrated authors as Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, and Stephen King, Jackson was a recluse and would refuse to discuss her bibliography with anyone except her husband, literary critic Stanley Hyman. An abrasive and eccentric woman with a chaotic process, these trademark qualities make Jackson the perfect subject for Decker’s follow-up to Madeline’s Madeline (2018), which tells a spiritually similar story about the strange depths of the imagination.
Jackson succumbed to a heart condition in 1965 at the age of 48, a fate that was surely exacerbated by her excessive cigarette smoking and thoroughly messy lifestyle. However, Shirley takes place relatively early in the writer’s published career — during the writing of her novel Hangsaman in the late 1940s — with Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) finding her muse in the form of two young women: Rose (Odessa Young) and Paula. The former is staying with her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), at Shirley and Stanley’s house while Fred works as Stanley’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) teaching assistant. Paula is the victim of a horrendous murder on the local college campus that still remains unsolved. Regardless of the dissimilarities between these two young women on the surface level, Jackson conflates them in her mind and strikes creative gold. She enjoys seeing Rose twitch under her antagonistic thumb and revels in the bedlam she creates for her houseguest.
What follows is a tense (and occasionally comedic) nightmare, a fever dream of sorts that details the chewing up and the spitting out of a poor young housewife for the sake of a deranged author’s personal gain. The contrast between Shirley and Stanley’s dysfunctional and weathered marriage and Rose and Fred’s doe-eyed honeymoon phase only amplifies this strain, ultimately resulting in a harsh environment that proves to be unlivable for everyone but Jackson. Like the monster in a horror novel, she seemingly feasts on the anxiety and fear that she’s generated, basking in the misery while lives crumble around her. These mind games constitute the bulk of the film: Standard biopic expectations lead the viewer to believe that a biographical film should run through career highlights as if adapting the subject’s Wikipedia page, but Shirley would much rather spend time showcasing the director’s penchant for the surreal.
Decker’s latest is another entry in an impressive string of vehicles that facilitate unhinged performances from actress Elisabeth Moss, who has carved out quite the niche for herself in the years since her Mad Men (2007-15) tenure came to an end. Following her portrayal of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man (2020), a scene-stealing dual role (both equally committed) in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019), and an unapologetically brash rocker in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (2018), it’s remarkable as ever to see Moss chomping at the bit (and the scenery), disappearing into the mind of a truly disturbed character. This time she’s accompanied by the chronically underused Michael Stuhlbarg. Always willing to dial a performance up and embrace the genre (as evidenced in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water  and the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man ), the actor makes Stanley the kind of aggressive foil that a character like Jackson (and an actress like Moss) demands.
Anchored by such a loud act from Moss, Decker could have tackled Shirley one of two ways: either dial back the dense and uncompromising techniques that she’s become known for and let Moss stand alone or match her unflinching performance with equally ostentatious direction. Decker opts for the second option, bolstering Moss and her incomparable portrayal of Jackson with an unsettling score, ambitious cuts, and avant-garde camerawork. Truthfully, it’s a bit hard to stomach. As seen in Madeline’s Madeline, Decker relies heavily on hazy, handheld cinematography that floats in and out of focus as a (troublingly flawed) means to portray mental illness. It’s likely the intended result is to disorient the audience, blurring the line between reality and fantasy for both the characters and the viewers. It doesn’t work out this way, unfortunately. In fact, Decker’s signature style, when coupled with a typically coarse turn from Moss, makes for an exhausting viewing experience that also happens to diabolize mental illness.
Of course, there is something to be said for embracing a writer’s genre when crafting their literary biopic. Decker certainly deserves praise for trying to break the mold here, even if it does end up being as disagreeable as something more traditionally by the book. One would struggle to find another character study from recent years as abstract as Shirley. Yet, it’s hard not to get the impression that Decker is striving for cult status with such flashy direction, effectively overshadowing the real alt-legacy of Jackson herself. “Style over substance” is a label (often unfairly) slapped on anything that dares to diverge from the beaten path, but there’s no better way to describe a film that favors deliberately distracting panache over a more substantial exploration of the text.
Shirley is now available to stream from Hulu and to rent from other major online platforms.