Pushed over a metaphorical cliff, the two nonconformists in Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” — her follow-up to the mind-bending “Madeline’s Madeline” — bond over the maddening submissiveness expected of them, which they both come to furiously abhor. Their strange alliance makes for a psychologically layered portrait of unapologetic womanhood that’s dangerously sensual and sumptuously rebellious.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday, comes from a screenplay by Sarah Gubbins, which was adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s biographical fiction novel. Decker revives American genre writer Shirley Jackson (embodied by Elisabeth Moss) with a concoction of fact and magical realism, which may frame the film as a radically more exciting cousin to Stephen Daldry’s Virginia Woolf-centered, triptych drama “The Hours.”
Sensorial waves are sent through our systems right from the drama’s opening frames via cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s hypnotic camerawork and ethereal lighting. For the characters, and our psyches, a thunder ripping through the sky seems to have the destructive potency of an unwanted touch, because the angles in the frame refuse to stay static.
Mentally unable to set foot outside her home or find the flame of creativity, the reclusive Shirley has withdrawn from the world more than usual, reaffirming her reputation in rigid 1950s Virginia as a fear-inspiring writer, both for the darkness of her stories and for her disinterest in pleasing others. Nightmarish visions, paired with Tamar-kali’s playfully chilling score, create a disorienting effect that matches her inner state.
Moss, a chameleonic actress with a fondness for volatile characters exemplified most recently by those in “Her Smell” or “Queen of Earth,” torches the screen with an empty gaze full of suffocated rage, which every so often makes room for a mischievous smile. She is a bomb ready to explode, an earthquake always about to rattle societal foundations. But just as her Shirley seems on the edge of a breakdown, she masks the ferociousness with vulnerability.
Unfaithful husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a university professor, invites a newlywed couple to spend time at their home with the ulterior motive of providing Shirley with housekeeping help and a distraction. Stuhlbarg settles into the role of a spouse always walking the line between wanting to keep Shirley tamed and at home and having sincere concern for her ability to write again.
Rose (promising Australian actress Odessa Young), the pregnant young wife of Stanley’s protégé Fred (Logan Lerman), establishes a connection with the novelist marked by an unequal power dynamic. Their relationship shifts between platonic interest, romantic desire and degrading servitude.
The hosts’ blatant arrogance is manifested in snobbish remarks ragging on mediocrity and unoriginality to the tune of, “A clean house is a sign of mental inferiority.” Awfully self-absorbed people with enough stature, influence and poisonous charm to lure others into their sharp claws, Shirley and Stanley are remorseless and similarly toxic. Soon their “children,” as they see their visitors, begin mimicking their behavior.
Young, who could have been easily swallowed on screen by Moss’ monstrous presence, holds her own, at first with a more naïve version of Shirley’s views and later surpassing her intensity. Their composite alter ego, Paula, a young student whose disappearance in the woods nearby ignites a new literary endeavor, takes Rose’s physical form while channeling Shirley’s disregard for conventions and morbid fascinations.
As the plot moves forward, the fiction they construct for a woman they never met but claim to know overtakes them and redirects their paths. “The world is too cruel to girls,” Shirley reminds Rose, and in that phrase encapsulates the underlying feminist mentality that guides her and the movie.
Both are privileged women, who even at the time held more agency than most others from different economic or ethnic backgrounds — and yet in her position as a notorious intellectual, Shirley was still measured against the same standards. Moss sinks her teeth into the character’s unlikable qualities and manipulative tactics, ensuring this is not a simplistically sanitized image but rather one that’s difficult to pigeonhole.
Decker is a superbly imaginative director, which leaves one wishing her creative powers had pushed the film even further away from the constraints of reality. But that’s a downside that comes with working from material written by another artist.
Still, she was an ideal choice to add an unconventional, nearly experimental edge to the project. With a story that doesn’t abide by a binary moral code, just as her previous work didn’t, her directorial skills are most present in the way she handles the nuances in the acting and elicits complex meaning from charged silences.
Decker could never be just “terrifically competent,” a concept one of her characters despises, and this engrossing new feature proves she is more than capable of taking a preconceived narrative and imbuing it with her unpredictable sensibilities.