'Shirley' casts a dark spell

Courtesy PhotoElisabeth Moss stars in 'Shirley.'

Biographical films, and many “based on a true story” films in general, carry with them a certain risk that in many ways has nothing to do with “accuracy.” Yes, every time a biopic about a famous figure comes out there are articles charting the facts of the story against the way the film portrays things, but that’s often not the biggest issue. The biggest issue, as proven by the various films that try to play with the conventions of the subgenre in order to solve the problem, is structure. 

Watch the 2018 hit “Bohemian Rhapsody” followed by the 2019 hit “Rocketman” and you’ll see what I mean. Both films are relatively straightforward life story dramas about famous musicians, but they’re each trying to stray from the basic timeline of their central character’s life in one way or another. Just about every biopic tries it, whether they center the story on one keystone event (like the prison concert in “Walk The Line”) or play with the staging (like the musical sequences in “Rocketman”), and yet many of them risk a certain staleness. 

That sense of staleness, of predictable patterns these films tend to fall back on, makes it all the more refreshing when a film like “Shirley” comes along. Though it is a story focused on the life and work of legendary writer Shirley Jackson, director Josephine Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins are in no way interested in playing by biopic rules. Instead, they place Jackson, her life, and her work, in the context of one of her own stories. The result is a dazzling film anchored by a tremendous leading performance that feels like we’re watching Jackson live out a dread-filled tale of her own making.

Adapted from Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel of the same name, the film centers not on Jackson directly, but on a young couple who have come to stay at her home in 1950, after Jackson has been catapulted into the national spotlight on the strength of her story “The Lottery.” While Fred (Logan Lerman) heads off to work under Jackson’s professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), Rose (Odessa Young) spends most of her time at home with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), who is both battling mental illness and working on a new novel based on the story of a local girl’s disappearance. At first, Rose resents being asked to stay home and cook and clean for Jackson, but her fascination with the author’s work leads her to dig deeper into the mind of her host. Together they begin a complicated, often paranoid relationship built on a search for meaning and understanding in a world that seems determined to tell them both to know their place.

Early in the film, when Rose and Shirley first meet, the young mother-to-be tells the writer that reading “The Lottery” made her feel “thrillingly horrible.” It’s an accurate description for many longtime fans of Jackson’s writing, and one that Decker and Gubbins thoroughly embrace as they tell this story of a fictional encounter between the legendary reclusive writer and a passionate young woman who longs to understand her. Even among other writers of horror and read, Jackson’s legacy is one of enigmatic strangeness, and perhaps the most immediately gripping thing about “Shirley” is that it doesn’t shy away from that. The film often unfolds less like a story and more like a tone poem, concerned more with setting a mood than laying the tracks of a narrative.

That means the film has to rely heavily on its cast to keep the audience invested, and it’s here that Moss once again proves she is one of the most versatile and viscerally talented women working in film and television right now. Her Jackson is not an impression, or some kind of sympathetic copy meant to draw viewers into a world of empathy. Instead she creates an unapologetic portrait of a woman constantly searching for some unseen truth, be it within her fiction or within herself, who doesn’t care if she harms people who try to impede that. It’s one of the most stunning performances of the year, and outshines everyone else in the film even as Young, Stuhlbarg, and Lerman are also doing wonderful work.

“Shirley” is not interested in telling the true story of Jackson’s life, and it’s also not particularly interested in trying to “explain” who the author was in any kind of concrete sense. Instead it’s a film devoted to exploring our thrillingly horrible fascination with the kind of stories she wrote, and in the process of that exploration it seems to become one. “Shirley” is the closest thing to a Shirley Jackson story she never wrote that we have, and that might be the highest compliment I can pay it.

‘Shirley’ is now streaming on Hulu and available to rent through other platforms.