“When I read it, it made me feel thrillingly horrible.” This line, uttered by Rose (Odessa Young) to describe Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery, in the opening minutes of Josephine Decker’s Shirley (2020), could also serve as a winking summation of Decker’s filmography. Like 2018’s Madeline’s Madeline, Shirley is an avant-tinged psychodrama where the thrills lie in the viewer’s need to disentangle fact from fiction, character from character, and an individual’s identity from oppressive systems.
At the start of the film, Rose is an optimistic and supportive young wife to her husband Fred (Logan Lerman), who has just gotten accepted to study under critic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as a teacher’s assistant at Bennington College in Vermont. Rose, recently pregnant and no longer a student, is quickly consigned by Hyman to commit to domestic chores and look after his wife Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite her status as an acclaimed author-of-the-moment, Jackson writes at home in a state of reclusive paranoia. A bond forms between the two women in the absence of their partners, and voiceover narration from Jackson begins to guide the film as she dictates passages of her new work-in-progress, Hangsaman, in which her imagined version of a missing college student slowly becomes conflated with her idealized version of Rose.
In a similar vein to her performance in Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell (which screened at the 2019 Wisconsin Film Festival), Moss’s Jackson is someone who spews bile like her life depends on it. Hardened from years of psychological battle with her belittling husband, she peppers conversations with verbal lacerations, and it slowly becomes clear that her life may literally depend on it. While history has proven Jackson to be the more lasting voice, Shirley shows Hyman as the more cunning and vicious of the two, a man who learned to cruelly exploit both his own status and Jackson’s precarious mental state to retain control over her. In spite of this, both parties are aware of Jackson’s genius to an extent that it lets her retain a sort of freedom within their closed-off world. It’s a complicated dynamic; the two really do seem to love and respect one another, even if that love is expressed through near-constant fighting and sabotage.
Director Decker meets Moss’ and Stuhlbarg’s caustic virtuosity with a filming style that’s equally unsettling. Cameras queasily circle characters as they attack and defend, every look and line reading punctuated by prickling sound design. As Rose and Jackson’s personalities begin to meld, so too does Jackson’s imagined version of the missing girl begin to resemble Rose, and Rose her. Decker cross-cuts seamlessly between the imagined and the real, blending the two together until the characters start to more resemble mental projections of themselves.
Shirley is ultimately about the ways in which these women gradually take control, and the symbiotic relationship of life and art that allows fictional constructs to become avatars for self-actualization. Heady as that may be, Decker explores the concept with exacting and visceral filmmaking that proves she’s completely in her own lane as a contemporary American auteur.