The trailer for Josephine Decker’s new film Shirley was one of the best I’d seen this year. It is edited in a way that makes the film look crisp and calculated with some sort of nuanced package waiting for us. But if you know me, you know I hate it when a trailer misleads the audience into thinking a film is something that it’s not. This my friends, is one of those instances.
The whole film looks and feels like a horror movie and the mood is generally uneasy. Based on the Susan Scarf Merrell novel of the same name, it’s a testament to Shirley’s mind, even though the film is not told through her perspective or necessarily anyone else’s. I was waiting for Shirley to snap at any moment and become a full-fledged slasher flick. For Rose to get trapped in the house and Fred to get whacked, all a plan devised by Shirley with Stan as her accomplice. None of this happens, of course. A predictable plot wouldn't have been fun either. But, perhaps the filmmakers know we know these beats all too well and consciously chose to create that atmosphere without the typical timeline of events. It isn’t a horror film after all. The real world can feel scary, but it’s not always a story like in books or movies.
I think the biggest issue I have is feeling left out. At many points throughout the film, I felt like I was missing context. Like I’m trying to keep up with the class but I didn’t do my homework the night before. I’m not familiar with Jackson’s writing, but I could tell the filmmakers adore her. The film is definitely a tribute to her work. With that admiration comes a sense of exclusivity to Shirley Jackson fans that only they will understand. Watching this movie was like trying to figure out what your new group of friends are laughing about, but completely missing the joke. And when your audience misses the joke, it’s like your audience is the joke. Simply put, this movie kinda made me feel stupid. I wasn’t smart enough going in to pick up on all their keen little nods. I don’t feel any more connected to Shirley Jackson as a person, instead Shirley just pointed out how disconnected I am. It’s quite obvious the visuals on screen reflect Shirley’s ideas as she writes. I had to google her books and figure out what story she was writing in the film because I was so lost. I kinda thought I knew what was going on, but then I wouldn’t, then kinda got it, then went back to complete confusion. By the time I thought I understood what was going on, the film was over. Its an ending that is left to interpretation, which is fine when the film is a mystery, but not when the film serves as an initiation quiz for the Shirley Jackson fan club. You’re not sure if everything you assumed was dreamed up really was. I guess you can get away with that when you’re telling the story of a storyteller though. The most relatable part of this movie was when Stanley says to Shirley, “You’ve been in here for two months,” and I said, “Oh same, me too!”
Shirley Jackson and her partner Stanley Hyman invite a young couple, Fred and Rose, to stay with them in their quaint cottage home while the couple looks for a house. Fred starts working at the college where Stan is a professor while Rose stays at home with Shirley and plays house maid. Shirley, a well known author, is using the story of a missing girl in her town as a muse for her new horror novel. She tries to figure out what happened to her by putting Rose in the role of the missing girl within her demented fantasies. This builds up over time as Shirley becomes more seductive while she bonds with Rose until it finally crescendos into an ending that leads essentially nowhere. She finishes her book, but everything else that happens in between isn’t supposed to matter anymore. Sure, fine, but a movie with an ambiguous ending doesn’t work if you have an ambiguous story the whole time. You think there is a sort of mystery happening when there isn’t. Mysteries have solutions. Shirley is just weird for the sake of weird. This story drags you through a dreamlike world that is set vaguely in the past, in order to show you what it probably felt like to live in Shirley’s head. In no way does it match the tense quick cutting trailer. A good example of a film being told through the eyes of someone suffering from a mental disorder is Netflix’s Horse Girl from earlier this year. It’s a very structured film, and while it doesn't always feel like it makes sense, it comes together by the end. It even has an ambiguous ending, with the difference being that it gets you there effectively.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Elisabeth Moss is going to get much praise for this film, but I saw right through it. Being a Moss fan since her brilliant Peggy Olsen days, I was quite underwhelmed and almost annoyed at this performance, especially since I know she has it in her. There are some great moments where I believe she is Shirley, but for most of her scenes, it feels like I’m watching a bad SNL sketch. Michael Stuhlbarg as Stan is terrifically terrifying. He was creepy and left a gross, uneasy feeling whenever he was on screen. Logan Lerman is a great actor so I’m sad to see him get so little screen time. Odessa Young is the standout performance here. She was excellent as Rose and truly carried the whole film on her back.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
"...worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a bit of gloomy chaos..."
Shirley (2020) | HULU \ VOD
Shirley feels like a dream that you can’t wake up from, which is mostly thanks to its visual identity. The narration parallels the shaky camera visuals of lonely Shirley in her house while the description of her story’s lonely main character was pretty telling in trying to understand her. The blurry vignettes helped us to distinguish those moments. Though, there were many times I had to look away to keep from getting dizzy due to the poor cinematography. The film generally seems like it was a rushed production. Key scenes are notably lacking camera coverage, and transitions stand out as the most creative, colorful, and well done moments, probably because they had the time to figure out what they wanted to do after wrapping what I assume was a short shooting schedule. The scene where the school girls file out of the building is my favorite out of the whole film and it’s only a transition.
The production design was good. Although the time period isn’t exact, it’s a vaguely atomic age mid century setting. The way the characters think and speak though feels very contemporary, and in that sense, the exact emulation of a time period is not the priority in Shirley. Instead, it serves as an ambiance.The cottage house felt homey and part of another time, the costuming and color grading gave a vintage feel and effectively established the tone of the film.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
The soundtrack was excellent. I love the late 40s, early 50s tracks sprinkled in here and there, whether in the context of the scene or just for our listening pleasure. The score was on another planet, though. It had a lot of horror elements to it, being startling at times and unmotivated in many scenes. Not only is the score inconsistent with the tone of the movie, but it’s unfortunately bland at that. It feels ripped right out of another movie and slapped on top of this one. Or worse, ripped out of the stock music library altogether. It’s a shame to see it in these low budget indie films, but at the end of the day, the score sticks out as an afterthought.
Shirley Jackson, back in her time, was one of the weird girls. Most of those who aren’t fans of her work would be quick to write her off. She was a person who lived in pain and the way she worked through that pain was by writing her stories. That’s about the only thing I could muster from this film without knowing much about her prior. While this story isn’t a true account to the real author, there is still a level of commitment the filmmakers chose to honor Shirley’s memory with that they believe is the closest to authenticity. Shirley wasn’t the movie I had envisioned from the trailer, however, it may still be worth a watch if you’re in the mood for a bit of gloomy chaos.