Josephine Decker is emerging as a director of divisive interest. That makes her work fascinating to wade through. While I wound up on the other side of 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline, there is a greater value in the artist that separates the audience, then one that drives it right down the middle, without any effect. Her work will make you feel something. It will not leave you indifferent. For Shirley, she would not do anything as normative as the usual women’s lit biography. The outcome goes the way we would hope for, eschewing typified formats, and turning usual gender expectations on their head.
Much like Mary Shelley (2018), Shirley utilizes a fragmented kind of truth to convey the author’s life. The author, as they are remembered and invented, and not quite as they were. This creates a captivating kind of tension. As a big fan of the author and all of her works of gloomy horror, the parts that were her truly worked, and the parts that were new also contributed toward the same effect. There is a great space in the biographical film for reinvention. For abandoning the hagiography for something more tangibly true for modern audiences.
Shirley is superb in its feminism. Elizabeth Moss lends the author so much credibility, embodying her despondent layabout lifestyle. Watching a movie with a character like that, we have to ask, do we want to spend any amount of time with them? But it can also be the point. It is fascinating how it flips the gender conventions. The way the film exposes its men, as wretched, fundamentally flawed creatures incapable of controlling their desires, feels directly in vogue. It fits nicely into the pocket of Moss’s expanding resume of Feminist literature on film. Usually, we get to see men behaving badly without repercussions, but here, Shirley Jackson is the reigning Matriarch, ruling over her home, and her subjects, with brooding disaffection.
Odessa Young and Logan Lerman get to do some creative character work, as made up characters who come to reside with Jackson while she’s writing a book, for which their youth becomes a primary muse. Young is the most alive of the film, the whole thing feeling like a slightly tedious meditation between the living and the dead. The textual reading may presume it’s something like one of Jackson’s stories for the screen, it’s certainly rife with the themes and motifs of those, but it only manages to scratch the surface of that astounding potential.
Cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen gets to show off the most. Shirley is stricken with the very weight of its own aesthetic. It always feels heavy. It does not fluctuate between levity and crushing weight but errs on the side of the exhausting. The camera work can be truly special when it does not bore down the theme. There are some remarkable moments of horror, come to life from the page. It feels exactly like a gothic horror fairytale in its dulled down feeling if it does not always match the sensibility everywhere else.
Josephine Decker will divide audiences once again. There has to be a space for a film like Shirley to operate. It is guaranteed for a certain fandom on the internet, likely lasting exactly as long as it takes to get the next literary thing, but enjoying the triumph of audience favor until then. It is a perfectly fine attempt at making something completely new out of a beloved artist’s work. We may occasionally wonder why the created story is the one it has landed on, one that is becoming somewhat prototypical for the independent film. Yet within that creative structure, Shirley always embodies exactly what Shirley Jackson is about. For that, every admirer of her work will have to catch it once.