Movie Review: “Shirley” (2020)

It would be unfair to say that once the credits start rolling on Josephine Decker’s “Shirley” one will ask why they bothered watching it all the way through. The answer to that is Elisabeth Moss. Yet again proving herself to be an immensely talented actor, Moss is mesmerizing as Shirley Jackson.

If that name, Shirley Jackson, sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that. It is because the film is a work of fiction, but one centered on the real author of “The Lottery.”

Except that it isn’t.

The movie isn’t centered on Shirley at all. It is, instead, about Rose Nemser (Odessa Young). Rose and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), are staying with Shirley and her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), as Fred works for Stanley at Bennington. A play on “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” the audience gets to watch as Stanley and Shirley torture Rose and (to a lesser extent) Fred for an hour and 45 minutes.

Except that maybe not.

“Shirley” would have you believe that Shirley and Rose becomes friends over the course of the movie. That through her haze of alcoholism and goodness knows what else (depression, certainly, but not only that), Shirley takes Rose under her wing and the two form a bond.

Until they don’t.

Over and over again this tale, written by Sarah Gubbins and based on the book by Susan Scarf Merrell, proves itself to be little more than a series of scenes that come after one another much more temporally than they do narratively. It stops. It starts. People are friends. People are enemies. People love each other. People hate each other. People feel one way about something. People feel another. The audience only knows that time is moving forward because Rose is becoming more pregnant and because everyone talks about the increasing length of the period Rose and Fred have lived with Shirley and Stanley, not because there are considerable changes in the characters that exist as a result of events. There are changes to mental states, yes, but too rarely do they result from anything which occurs. Instead, those states cause things to occur and that feels rather backwards.

Decker’s movie is beautifully visualized, slow moving and hazy and dreamlike, but by the time it finishes, one has to wonder why it wasn’t simply a one paragraph idea “what if Shirley Jackson and her husband were George and Martha from ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (or maybe I’m wrong, perhaps it is exactly that idea put on screen. A quick glance at the press notes does mention this being an homage). Moss may be wonderful in it—in fact, she is wonderful in it—but Elizabeth Taylor is not exactly a slouch in “Virginia Woolf.” Stuhlbarg is great as well; and so is Richard Burton for that matter.

If we know why we watched the film (Elisabeth Moss), the question becomes what did we watch and the answer to that is… not much. There is no insight given into any character over the course of the film which can’t be instantly gleaned in the first five minutes. There is no knowledge imparted as to who Shirley Jackson actually was in life. There is no shocking revelation. There is a lot of drinking a lot of yelling a lot of upset a lot of lies and… a two pronged ending which might be intended to make people stop and think, but most likely will fail to do so and which they won’t remember a week later. From the moment the movie starts it is clear that there is going to be some sort of twist or reveal before the credits and as there’s little going on with any character in the film, save Rose’s downward spiral living in that house, there’s little to generate any interest in whatever happens at the end. Consequently, there’s little reason for people to want to discuss it.

Much of the above reads as though I’m dismissing “Shirley” out of hand. That is not my intent. There are few people out there who do work as consistently engrossing as Elisabeth Moss, and she is so very watchable here even if there is little for her to do. The film is beautifully moody. There are pieces where one momentarily wonders if it will build to anything interesting instead of being a series of scenes. It doesn’t. It fails to grow into a compelling story – each building block may be there, but they are never stacked to form a single whole. It is not the gut punch one gets from reading “The Lottery.” It is not a movie remotely as compelling as Moss’s work within it.


photo credit:  Neon

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