By Bradley Lane
Horror pioneer Shirley Jackson’s writing is both idiosyncratic and highly influential. First shocking readers in June of 1948, her short story, The Lottery, became an instant culture war. Critics heaped upon her praise while general audiences were turned off by the seemingly needless brutality of the conclusion that left them without a satisfying resolution. The New Yorker magazine claimed at the time they received more mail over this piece of fiction than any other piece they had published up to that point. Jackson herself has said the letters ranged from bewilderment to outright abuse. The air of tension and a strong sense of overwhelming dread became a staple of Jackson’s work and it is those key elements that Decker masterfully adapts to film that make Shirley so successful.
Set in the 1950s, the film is told through the perspective of a young newlywed couple Rose and Fred, played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman, as they escape their small town in pursuit of Fred’s career in academia. Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley, played by Elizabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg, take in the newlyweds briefly as Stanley promises to help Fred adjust to the university. However, what begins as a friendly gesture of hospitality slowly morphs into something more sinister, as the lines between reality and fiction begin to blur.
Decker’s adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name is less faithful to the truth of Jackson’s life so much as it is true to Jackson’s writing. The film is constantly putting the audience in an uncomfortable middle ground between reality and some great unknowable force of evil. It’s a confusing, often hazy film that I have no doubt will be as polarizing as Jackson’s own work. Some will love it and others will sit in quiet bewilderment as the credits roll. One thing you cannot call this film is lazy or uninspired; Decker has a clear vision for her film and doesn’t give an inch of it in the name of compromise.
Despite its reality bending cinematic trickery, the film is grounded in traditional means of quality, exemplified by the excellent script and impressive performances from each of the four main characters. The chemistry between the four of them is a joy to see on screen, but the star of the show is Elizabeth Moss. She adds a strong sense of inviting complexity to a character that in the hands of any other actress would have otherwise been instantly unlikable.
Shirley is a stylistic homage to Jackson’s work and a deep dive into her psyche that I expect will leave audiences split down the middle. But if it’s ambition you’re looking for in films, make no mistake, this one is not to be missed. Shirley is available to stream on Hulu. – 4.5/5 stars