Review by Sean Boelman
As a follow-up to her beloved and unconventional exploration of the theatre world, Madeline’s Madeline, Josephine Decker’s biopic Shirley initially appears like it could be a step in the wrong direction. However, despite bringing on an A-list cast and more standard material, this film is no less inspired than the work that put her on the map in the first place.
The movie takes a look at a portion of the life of horror novelist Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House) as she and her academic husband board two young newlyweds that offer both inspiration and a challenge for her writing. This film shares a lot more in common with Madeline’s Madeline than the traditional biopic in that it is more an exploration of creativity than a linear account of a writer’s career.
In the movie, writer Sarah Gubbins throws a lot of tropes to the wind, giving viewers a film that is just barely structured, much less linear. At times, this is Jackson’s story, but more often, she is a supporting player in her own life, playing into the idea of how one lives their life once they have gained fame and public notice.
Gubbins obviously has a lot on her mind about the artistic process, and she expresses it in a variety of ways. There are a handful of memorable scenes in which the characters engage in heated debates about literary supremacy, essentially spelling out the movie’s central message, but other scenes are much more subtle and crawl under the viewer’s skin to make their point.
The device of using fictional characters to deliver a biopic about a famous figure is interesting and risky, and in this case, it pays off in droves. Having Jackson as an almost mythical presence overlooking the sometimes melodramatic conflict of the film makes it even more fascinating and is more compelling than any form of idolatry ever would be.
Elisabeth Moss gives yet another phenomenal performance in her leading role, proving herself to be one of the most dynamic actresses working today. The supporting cast is also stacked with talent, with strong efforts from Logan Lerman and Odessa Young and an expectedly brilliant turn from character actor Michael Stuhlbarg.
Decker’s visual style also manifests itself amazingly here. The cinematography and editing are both gorgeous, much more ambitious than any standard biopic would be. Decker uses a lot of visual dissonance in the movie to create discomfort, perfectly fitting given the protagonist’s ties to the world of horror.
Those looking for an average film need not watch Shirley, as it is about as unorthodox as they come. Josephine Decker has a very distinctive and singular voice as a filmmaker, and this movie proves that, no matter the material, she’s one to watch.
Shirley hits VOD, virtual cinemas, and Hulu on June 5.