In the very first scene of Shirley – Josephine Decker‘s fourth feature after 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline – Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is reading Shirley Jackson‘s ‘The Lottery‘ on a train with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman), the two on their way to meeting the acclaimed author themselves. Rose is visibly shocked but also excited by the now-iconic story, in which the residents of a small American town annually hold a lottery to decide which member of their community to stone to death. “It’s terrific”, she tells Fred as she puts the magazine down in awe.
Little does Rose know that the woman behind the story, terrific as she may be, is an eccentric hermit with a mean streak caused (or at the very least exacerbated) by severe depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and an equally eccentric husband (Michael Stuhlbarg). Rose and Fred are on their way to temporarily live with the couple, with Fred planning to come under the wing of Jackson’s husband Stanley as an assistant professor in mythology and folklore.
Like Madeline’s Madeline before it, Shirley is largely concerned with the most difficult and troubling aspects of the artistic process, along with the ways in which the process of telling another person’s story is an act of painful extraction. Unlike that film, however, Shirley doesn’t feel like it has anything new to contribute to the discussion, despite its all-around excellent performances (Decker proving once again that she is a terrific director for actors). There’s a discomfort and tension running through the film that isn’t present in the far more natural Madeline’s Madeline, as if it is struggling under the loose constraints of having to tell the story of a real person that lived and died. This isn’t to say Decker is lacking in directorial confidence – she makes the film very much her own – but it nevertheless feels as if there’s something missing or not quite right.
On the bright side, Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg turn out wildly entertaining and brilliantly uncomfortable performances as Shirley Jackson and her husband Stanley. Moss has been wonderful since her Mad Men days, and her work in Shirley is a pleasant continuation of the more daring kinds of roles she’s been taking on in films like Her Smell. She looks like she’s having a ton of fun here, playing sadistic mind games with every character she is forced to encounter, snarling at obnoxious faculty wives at her husband’s pretentious university parties, and smirking at inside jokes only she seems to understand. She has several great scenes with Odessa Young’s Rose – a puzzling enigma of a character herself – including a cruel prank involving a wild mushroom. Michael Stuhlbarg is also wonderful, of course (what is he not good in?), playing a loud, pompous, and at times quite sleazy college professor.
Still, I found myself often frustrated or emotionally distanced by the film’s oblique quality, despite loving a similar effect achieved in Madeline’s Madeline. The film just feels stuck, fighting between the unwieldy arthouse inclinations of its auteur and the responsibilities of adapting its source material and remaining true to its real-life subject. Regardless of my problems with it, I suspect Shirley will in fact entertain a certain audience, and at the very least its existence proves that its director and cast are all names to keep watching in the coming years.