Review: ‘Shirley,’ starring Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young and Logan Lerman

June 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss in “Shirley” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Shirley”

Directed by Josephine Decker

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1964 in Bennington, Vermont, the psychological drama “Shirley” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans) representing academia and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two married couples who are temporarily living together have tensions and conflicts over emotional well-being, infidelity and career achievements.

Culture Audience: “Shirley” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of actress Elisabeth Moss, real-life author Shirley Jackson or atmospheric dramas about people who play mind games.

Logan Lerman and Odessa Young in “Shirley” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Shirley” is not an easy film to watch because the movie’s namesake—renowned horror writer Shirley Jackson—is not someone who lives life easily. The movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014’s book “Shirley: A Novel,” a fictional story of an emotionally troubled Jackson and her professor husband, Stanley Hyman, inviting a young newlywed couple named Fred and Rose Nemser to temporarily live with them. Fred and Rose are offered free lodging in exchange for doing chores around the house. But the invitation into the Jackson/Hyman home is really so Shirley can have a distraction from her anxiety, depression and apparent delusions.

“Shirley” the movie—directed by Josephine Decker and written by Sarah Gubbins—starts off with the naïve newlyweds Fred (played by Logan Lerman) and Rose (played by Odessa Young) arriving by train to Bennington, Vermont. It’s 1964, and they’ve moved to Bennington because Fred has been hired as an assistant to Stanley (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), who’s an English professor at Bennington College. Chain-smoking, hard-drinking Shirley (played by Elisabeth Moss) has become a bed-ridden recluse after the very divisive reactions to her psychological horror novels and short stories, most notably “The Lottery” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”

Shirley’s reputation has preceded her, so Rose and Fred are intrigued to meet this famous but unsociable author. And viewers soon see why Shirley has a reputation for being difficult. At a dinner party at their home, Stanley plays the charming host, while Shirley is the temperamental, often abrasive artist. When someone asks Shirley, “What are you writing now?” She replies curtly, “A little novella called ‘None of Your Damn Business.””

When newlyweds Rose and Fred arrive at the home, Stanley asks them to temporarily stay at the house to help with household duties, such as cleaning and shopping, in exchange for living rent-free at the house. Stanley explains that the family housekeeper has suddenly quit, so they’re desperate for the help, since Shirley is having one of her “bouts.” Rose is pregnant and reluctant to accept the offer, but Fred doesn’t want to alienate his new boss, so he says yes.

Meanwhile, the “bout” that Shirley is having is a bout of depression. Stanley has to plead with her to get out of bed, in order to meet the new couple who will be living with them. (In the “Shirley” novel, Shirley and Stanley have four children. In the movie, the couple has no children.)

Shirley isn’t thrilled about Rose and Fred being there. “A clean house is a sign of mental inferiority,” Shirley tells Stanley. “I don’t want strangers here.” Stanley convinces Shirley to have dinner with him and the new couple by telling her that “it’s cocktail hour” and that she doesn’t have to behave at the table.

And “misbehave” Shirley does. Knowing that Rose is pregnant, Shirley rudely asks Rose if Fred knew that Rose was “knocked up” before he married her. She makes some other comments that are meant to upset the couple, just to see what their reaction will be. Rose gets so upset that she and Fred leave the dinner table early. When Rose and Fred are alone together in their room, Rose says she wants to leave as soon as they can, while Fred tells her that they can’t risk alienating Stanley because Fred is hoping that Stanley will recommend him for a permanent position at Bennington College.

Meanwhile, Shirley continues to make Rose uncomfortable. When Rose goes into Shirley’s study, supposedly to bring some coffee, Rose ends up looking through some of the things in the study instead. Shirley catches her in the act and yells at Rose to never go in the study again. Rose can’t help but feel disappointed in the way that Shirley is treating her because when they first met, Rose complimented Shirley on “The Lottery” by telling her something she thought Shirley would like to hear: “The Lottery” made Rose feel “thrillingly horrible.”

Shirley has been working on a novel based on the mystery of a real-life missing Bennington College student named Paula Jean Welden (also played by Young), in a case that has remained unsolved. Rose also becomes obsessed with the case, so Rose and Shirley start to become closer over this common bond. The two women end up becoming co-dependent friends, which is a surprise to Fred.

It’s implied, not outrightly stated, that Shirley and Rose are also sexually attracted to each other, with Shirley making the first moves in being sexually flirtatious with Rose. For example, there’s a scene where the two couples have dinner together, and Shirley suggestively rubs her leg against Rose’s leg underneath the table without their husbands’ knowledge. And there’s another scene where Shirley and Rose almost come close to having an erotic embrace and kissing.

Meanwhile, Stanley flirts with Rose too, by rubbing up against her and even kissing her quickly on the mouth when they’re alone together. She reacts with surprise, but doesn’t say anything to protest. It’s not much of a shock to find out later in the story that Stanley cheats on Shirley with female students at Bennington College. (One of his eccentricities is playing the music of blues artists such as Leadbelly in his his all-female classes.) Shirley knows about Stanley’s philandering but does nothing about it except privately seethe.

Because his wife is a successful author who makes more money than he does, Stanley tries to validate his intelligence and ego in the marriage by telling Shirley that he needs to look over her drafts before she sends them to her publisher. And in order to thwart any power that the younger and better-looking Fred might have in the household, Stanley does a brutal critique of Fred’s dissertation in front of Fred, Shirley and Rose. Underneath the easygoing and friendly demeanor, Stanley is really a creepy control freak.

As Rose spends more time with Shirley, Rose starts to become more like Shirley: paranoid, disheveled and suspicious of what kind of infidelities her husband might be committing. It’s a change in Rose that Fred doesn’t like at all. And so, the roles between the couple are reversed: Rose once was eager to leave Shirley’s home because Shirley made Rose feel intimidated and unwanted, but now Rose is reluctant to leave because Shirley now makes her feel trusted and needed in the home.

“Shirley” is the type of movie that’s more about evoking moods rather than telling a straightforward narrative. For people who aren’t familiar with the “Shirley” novel on which this movie is based, don’t expect it to be the type of story where Rose and Shirley turn into ace detectives to solve the mystery of a missing person.

The movies touches a little on the rigid and expected roles of women in that era, when Shirley comments to Rose about Rose’s unborn child: “Let’s pray for a boy. The world is too cruel to girls.”

But the heart of the story is how Shirley and Rose end up finding out that they are kindred spirits because they both consider themselves to be “outsiders.” There’s a pivotal scene in the movie where Rose confesses to Shirley that Fred’s parents cut him off because he eloped with Rose. Shirley tells Rose, “People are afraid to brush up against me. They’re afraid my dark thoughts will infect them.”

All of the actors in the cast do a perfectly fine job with their roles, but Moss (who seems to like portraying characters with a lot of emotional turmoil) has to do the heaviest lifting, since Shirley is the catalyst for almost everything in the story. “Shirley” is not her most memorable film, but Moss’ performance is compelling enough that viewers will be curious to see what she does next in the story.

However, parts of the film do end up dragging and might bore people who are expecting more things to happen. “Shirley” portrays the uncomfortable reality that insecure people often unnecessarily create chaos in their lives because inner peace is just too banal for them. The movie is less about Shirley Jackson’s creative process and more about her tendency to emotionally destroy and self-destruct.

Neon released “Shirley” in select U.S. virtual cinemas, digital, VOD and Hulu on June 5, 2020.