You could run fast away from me. But you don’t. Why don’t you?
Shirley is a film of small details, keenly observed; there’s a careful precision to its craft, an exactness to its story of creative struggle and personal turmoil. Such attentive filmmaking is what makes Shirley quite so deeply atmospheric, as befits a film inspired by the life and works of Shirley Jackson. Josephine Decker’s assured direction ties together some beautiful design and a haunting score – the film looks fantastic and sounds even better – and in turn Shirley offers a real sense of mounting dread.
At the centre of it all is a remarkable performance from Elisabeth Moss as Shirley, veering between unrestrained passion and eerie lucidity with characteristic skill. The camera is drawn to Moss much like houseguest Rose (Odessa Young) is to Shirley, and vice versa; Decker lingers in the close-up, a steady, unyielding gaze. There’s an intimacy to the scenes where the two are together, a striking contrast to how Shirley is shot when they’re apart – filmed from askew angles and around corners, never quite at the centre of the frame, imposing a certain distance on Shirley, positioning the writer at a remove.
This is how Decker picks through the layers of metaphor and artifice in this story of the partnership between artist and muse: as Shirley tries to understand the missing Paula, we try to understand Shirley. Critics have noted that this is not a strictly factually accurate account of Jackson’s life (most obviously in its omission of her real-life children), but Shirley is quite pointedly not a typical biopic – or even a biopic at all. It’s helpful not to think of Moss’ character as Jackson, but instead as Shirley: a similar character, yes, inspired by the real author, but a distinct creation in much the same way that the character Natalie Whaite of Jackson’s novel Hangsaman is distinct from the missing Paula Jean Welden. Much like Jackson’s own writing, Shirley is attempting to divine something deeper, beyond the constraints of purely biographical detail – it’s an effort to understand the relationships that underpin a creative life. Moss’ Shirley isn’t Jackson, necessarily, but the idea of her, of her reputation and body of work; what each of those things mean, and what they could mean, too.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the film finds itself preoccupied by death; it’s a recurring theme in Jackson’s gothic fiction, and Shirley grounds itself in that work, the film bookended by reference to The Lottery as it opens and allusions to Hangsaman at its close.
Here specifically, death is key to Shirley’s understanding of creativity. A crucial turning point in Shirley and Rose’s relationship comes as Shirley’s flirts with death, pretending to eat poisonous mushrooms. Moss is quietly haunting, her character now rendered much more lucid, as though grounded by the idea of suicide: “Don’t you find it exhilarating?” Shirley asks. “Oh, most young women are fascinated by their mortality,” she continues. When Rose rejects this – “They shouldn’t be. The truth is, nobody really cares if you live or if you die” – Shirley is, suddenly, fascinated by her. It’s this that sees Rose become the writer’s muse, rather than an obstacle or imposition, redefining the relationship at the heart of the film; death is fascinating to Shirley in the same way she is also enraptured by her muse – not just a single muse by two intertwined, a real dead girl and one who comes to represent her, each played by Odessa Young.
In that captivation the film comes alive – they’re transfixed, drawn to one another, unable to look away, just like the unyielding gaze of the camera. There’s a note of danger to it: it’s not just exhilarating, but intoxicating. Here is where Shirley is Odessa Young’s film as much as it is Elisabeth Moss’, if not in fact moreso. Moss anchors the film, but Young is a crucial counterweight, and in a lot of ways it’s her character’s transformation that offers the film its throughline. How her transformation is facilitated is striking – that ambiguous suicide, borrowed from Hangsaman, if not Rose’s literal death then certainly a version of it for a version of her. Rose’s relationship with her husband changes; Shirley is grounded, lucid, finally able to finish her novel. Artist and muse find new lives through one another: danger and liberation are found hand in hand.