Directed by: Josephine Decker
Written by: Sarah Gubbins
Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman
Controlling others doesn’t always have to be in a physical sense; having the ability to do so emotionally and mentally can be just as devastating if not more. In the hypnotizing and elusive Shirley, we get to witness one of the biggest matchups of how much one can tear down the other through their words.
Hoping to gain ground into professorship, Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) move into the home of Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) on a temporary basis. Their stay begins on an icy note, but quickly becomes a diabolical game of words between the two couples.
The comparisons made of this film to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are incredibly apt as we follow a quartet comprised of two couples duking it out. One older and lacking passion while the other still in the early stages. With the ability to show and imply more, Shirley takes the necessary steps to really rev up this story into full throttle. The players of the feature are a young couple hoping to start a new life together with Fred hoping to become a professor and Rose trying to be a supportive wife, even dropping out of her own education to do so. Stanley holds a coveted professor position and he utilizes it for all of the benefits while Shirley has reached acclaim for her terrifying stories. All of them colliding in one household allows for some growth and some damning reveals.
Feeling the biggest impact of this story is Rose, as she initially objects to staying in this house. Her progression and growth throughout the story speak volumes for the excellence of this film. From passivity to ownership, this film’s screenplay presents some delicious dialogue for these actors to chew up. Several diatribes and monologues never come to fruition as they each try to get in their words, but the silence in-between leaves a screeching sound of madness. Everyone seems to be on edge except for the naive young man because the game begins with Shirley and Stanley, only for Rose to learn and join in.
Shirley is a strong feminist story when looking at the two female characters as they find themselves in this boys club where the men advise the Shakespeare society and they stay home. Rose finds contentment in not knowing the truth, but Shirley is deemed unwell for acknowledging the imbalance and refusing to participate. The character of Shirley Jackson hates going out and originally only cared to taunt and humiliate her house guests, but as the film progresses, we get to learn more about what makes her that way and how she refuses to play this game.
The direction by Josephine Decker emphasizes and elevates the great script with how she blocks out each scene and sets everything up. The feelings of contention are made clear and she allows these relationships to blossom as they get more complicated throughout the feature. Decker remains in control for this whole story even with having her cast go absolutely bananas with their roles, and I’m glad her star continues to rise because she put together something worth dissecting and mulling over. I cannot say I have formulated my complete thoughts of this film as of the writing of this review, but I love that it has so much more under the surface to parse through.
All four actors brought their A-game to this feature with Logan Lerman being the weakest due to the limited role of Fred. Elisabeth Moss continues her streak of pure excellence as an actor. She has this ability to capture an unhinged personality and treat it with the proper dignity to make the character worthy of exploration. Moss makes for such a great Shirley Jackson, especially when squaring off with someone like Michael Stuhlbarg. The longtime actor never puts in a boring performance and his unsettling and rapturous portrayal of Stanley demonstrates his uncanny ability to stand out whenever he shows up on screen. He almost seemed unrecognizable in the role with how uncomfortable he makes everyone in the room, including his own partner. We follow much of this narrative through the eyes of Rose and Odessa Young shines in this role. This character gets put through the wringer and Young channels this insecurity and enlightenment in a manner that makes each new revelation frightening.
Shirley provides plenty to chew on with the story and I’m sure by the time I finish this review, there will be more to talk about and mull over because of the richness of this narrative. It has a strong conclusion but still leaves things open for interpretation as to what the future holds for each of these characters. The screenplay allows it to be an acting showcase and these wonderful actors do not squander the opportunity.