Sometimes bigger stars and bigger names don’t lead to better movies.
Josephine Decker’s previous film, Madeline’s Madeline, has only grown on me since I saw it last year. Its hyperesthetic portrayal of a mentally disturbed teen striving for selfhood is an exemplar of style fitting its subject, earning bonus points for handling its subject matter sensitively and empathically.
Now, with Shirley, director Josephine Decker has a pair of big-name stars. Martin Scorsese is on board as executive producer. And she’s spinning a biography of legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson, author of classics like “The Lottery” and The Haunting of Hill House.
Alas, Shirley is barely factual in its portrayal of Jackson. I don’t demand strict historical fidelity in movieland, but if you’re going to be tossing a lot of fabulism our way, have the decency to let us know from the start. You know, like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or God’s Not Dead.
Ironically, Shirley Jackson is not even the primary subject of Shirley, but I guess a film called Rose Nemser wouldn’t have quite the same cachet. Though Jackson figures prominently in Decker’s film, its central figure is the aforementioned pregnant newlywed (played by Odessa Young). She and her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) have just arrived in Bennington, Vermont, where Fred will be assisting Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), husband of Jackson (Elizabeth Moss).
Originally planning to board with Hyman and Jackson for only a few nights until they find their own digs, Hyman urges the Nemsers to reside with them longer. Jackson is a bedbound depressive agoraphobic, so Hyman could use some cleaning and cooking help, never mind that Rose intended to take classes at Bennington College.
Like the titular character of Decker’s earlier film, Rose is unformed, hurtling over-hastily into the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood. Her husband Fred is controlling, bestowing his permission on his wife to return to school once she’s given birth. Hyman is similarly unenlightened, a handsy lech of the type the #metoo movement would be targeting 70 years later.
In this milieu, Rose is clay to be molded by Jackson, who at first curtly repels the young woman’s overtures, until discovering her intelligence is useful. As Jackson crafts a new novel, based on the recent disappearance of a local college student, Rose finds the boundaries between herself, the fictional character, and Jackson dissolving.
With Shirley, Decker and her crew continue their superlative mastery of an unsettling aesthetic. One can never feel comfortable in Decker’s world of tilting angles and restless handheld camerawork. With the help of her DP, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen (whose work I also admired in this year’s Wendy), the prosaic becomes grotesque, whether the ivy covering the Hyman-Jackson home or the raw chicken awaiting the oven. The musical score by Tamar-kali – of dissonant strings, piano, and small chorus – further heightens our disquiet.
Despite the presence of A-list actors, I found the performances less accomplished here than in Madeline’s Madeline. Moss (typically quite versatile and expressive) and Stuhlbarg (normally at ease in professorial roles) seem overly mannered and artificial at times. In the scenes of Stuhlbarg teaching at Bennington College (at the time, a women-only institution), the gravitational sex appeal he supposedly exerts on his students is utterly unconvincing.
Although a film doesn’t require likeable characters to be of value, when a work already this problematic features a quartet of repugnant humans, it knocks the film even lower in my esteem. To be charitable, Rose is equal parts unformed and unlikeable, but Hyman and Jackson are a nastily sadistic duo, and Fred is a misogynistic pig. While I suppose Decker is trying to underscore the difficulties of achieving meaningful womanhood in America past and present, this is all in all an unsatisfying visit with Shirley.
(Shirley is now streaming on Hulu.)
(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )