My reaction to Shirley–the quasi-biographical film focusing on one of our greatest writers of American Gothic, Shirley Jackson–is decidedly mixed. There is a lot that I really liked about director Josephine Decker’s 2020 effort. The performances are superb; Elisabeth Moss unsurprisingly shines as the title scribe, and brings Jackson to onscreen life in all her moody reclusiveness, eccentricity, and complexity (Shirley proudly declares herself a witch, yet also appears wounded by her shunning by the Bennington, Vermont, community). Michael Stuhlbarg (Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) gives a terrific performance as Stanley Edgar Hyman, Shirley’s overbearing, lecherous professor of a husband. I also enjoyed the dramatization of Shirley’s struggle to write her next book (after becoming a cause célèbre for her controversial–and now-classic–story, “The Lottery”). The film’s behind-the-scenes glimpses of the development of the novel Hangsaman make for some compelling sequences.
At the same time, there were aspects of the movie that I found problematical. While I had no issue with the interpolation of a fictional couple (the graduate assistant Fred and his pregnant wife Rose) into the Jackson-Hyman household, I was bothered by the fact that the film presents Shirley as childless. In reality, the author’s uneasy role as mother/homemaker was a key aspect of her life and writing (leading to such books as Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons), so the absence of children here seemed like a convenient deviation from biographical truth. My bigger issue, though, is that I was never quite sure how the film wanted the viewer to respond to Shirley, whether to feel sympathy for her or to recoil from her rough edges (for Shirley, there’s a very line between a smile and a sneer). This ambiguity no doubt is part of the point, illustrating what a multifaceted and not-easily-understood figure Jackson was, but I nonetheless found it tough to find my emotional footing throughout.
At times, Shirley doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be–a possible murder mystery (Hangsaman is based on the disappearance of a young girl from the same college at which Stanley taught); a lesbian romance (the strange bond developed between Shirley and Rose); an indictment of the sexism of the times and the small-mindedness of small-town communities. The plot tends to meander, with no clear through-line, and Decker grows over-reliant on artful, enigmatic imagery. It’s not that I was expecting to watch a suspenseful thriller, or even a standard biopic, but I do wish the film had proved a little less obtuse and muted (I suspect that Susan Scarf Merrell’s source novel provides a more accessible narrative).
For fans of the author Jackson or the actress Moss, Shirley (now streaming on Hulu and also available to rent or purchase on Amazon) is definitely worth checking out, but the film ultimately serves as a quintessential example of the sum adding up to less than the parts.