“Shirley” finds the horror and grotesque in ordinary womanhood

"Shirley" premiered on Hulu on June 6. Image courtesy of Hulu

The painstaking nature of the artistic process is a much-loved subject in film. Filmmakers, as artists themselves, are interested in the work that goes into making a masterpiece, seen in works ranging from “Adaptation” to “Black Swan.”

The tortured genius is a well-known trope, but horror author Shirley Jackson’s particular brand of tortured bleeds off the pages of her books and pours out of every scene of Josephine Decker’s recent film, “Shirley.”

Based on the author’s life, “Shirley” is unsettling to say the least, and it may not be well-liked by a casual viewer. But it is filled to the brim with meaning for those who care to look. Decker is not only interested in the effect of the artistic process on the tortured genius, but the toll creating art, particularly art about the horrors women experience, can have on the art’s muse. 

In “Shirley,” newlyweds Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerman and Odessa Young) visit the famous horror writer (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, the professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). The couple, an invention of the film, eventually move in, with Rose becoming a caretaker of sorts. She finds herself increasingly drawn to Shirley, both horrified and mesmerized by her behavior. 

Lines between muse, subject and author blur, shaded by an impending sense of doom. In the film, Shirley is working on a novel (1951’s “Hangsaman”) about the real-life disappearance of Paula Jean Welden, a college student who went on a walk one day and never returned. Shirley initially despises Rose, but once she notices her similarities to Paula, she begins to view her as the missing girl, using and manipulating Rose for her own inspiration. Rose, unwittingly, becomes her muse. 

Elisabeth Moss stars as Shirley Jackson in “Shirley.” Image courtesy of Hulu

The women’s codependent relationship is exacerbated by the fact that Shirley has isolated herself in her house – a looming structure that feels as alive as anything else in the film. In real life, Shirley Jackson was often delegated to her home for extended periods of time, due to severe anxiety and other health ailments that made it difficult for her to travel long distances. 

She was ostracized by people in town due to her disdain for being relegated to the role of “faculty wife,” and she felt oppressed by her husband, who she (reluctantly) had an open relationship with and who had direct control of all of her finances. Her circumstances led to anger and increased alcohol abuse as time went on. The mood of the film is ominous and claustrophobic, focusing on the horrific aspects of ordinary life while set in a house that feels more like a prison.

That level of extreme isolation is horrific to think about, and as the United States heads into the fourth month of the pandemic, it also feels scarily familiar. The cinematography, which often uses hyper close-ups and narrow depth of field to focus on certain objects, creates the sense of being trapped. It also embodies one of the key themes of Jackson’s novels: finding the horrific and grotesque in the ordinary. 

As the film goes on, the boundaries become messier, leaving the audience (and Shirley and Rose) to wonder about Shirley’s motivation. Her machinations take a toll on her as much as they do on Rose. At times, it’s clear her only focus is her writing, and she’ll move Rose like a chess piece in order to get what she wants. But other incidents are not so clear cut. 

Shirley frequently imagines Rose as the disappeared girl, Paula. She imagines her in the moments right before her disappearance. She sees her around the house. She feels an intense affection for Paula, despite never meeting her. Her husband thinks the choice of genre and subject is beneath her. He criticizes her, saying, “There’s nothing fascinating about this girl except that she’s gone.”

Shirley erupts at this. “There are dozens and dozens of girls like this littering campuses across the country. Lonely girls who cannot make the world see them. Do not tell me I do not know this girl.”

Her care for the subject, and in turn Rose, is crystal clear in this moment. When her manipulations of Rose turn to torture, she seems exhausted by the effort. After revealing Rose’s husband’s infidelity, Shirley runs to her room and sinks to the floor wearily as Rose bangs on the bedroom door. She seems to yearn to mother, love and hurt Rose in equal capacity, and as the film goes on, Rose yearns for her attention in any capacity.

By the film’s climax, Rose’s attachment to Shirley is clear. But the audience is left to wonder if Shirley’s goal was solely to find inspiration in Rose, to open her up to the horrors of female existence or both.

The film couldn’t work as well as it does without the dynamite performance of Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson. Moss doesn’t just play the famous author – she inhabits her. The unpredictability of Moss’s performance pushes it over the edge. Moss goes from motherly to scathing in seconds in her interactions with Rose, from enraged with her husband to the point of murder to craving his approval of her work. Moss switches so seamlessly, you never see the mechanics working.

It’s uncanny how much they look alike, but what’s more incredible and a true testament to Moss’s talent is how, despite how famous she’s become in the wake of “Mad Men and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her persona isn’t visible at all. The audience is not watching Elisabeth Moss become Shirley Jackson, but instead watching Shirley Jackson. 

One line more than others sums up Decker’s interpretation of Shirley Jackson’s thoughts on the underlying horror of a woman’s life. Her husband asks her what happens to the character in her novel (The disappearance of Paula Jean Welden has never been solved). With her answer, she could be talking about Paula, Rose or even herself. 

“What happens to all lost girls?” she asks. “They go mad.”

“Shirley” premiered on Hulu on June 6.

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