Most Australian audiences will never have heard of 20th-century American novelist Shirley Jackson. For many years, and despite her stature in her home country, her work was surprisingly hard to access here, and with our unimaginative adherence to the strictures of genre, we would find her too tricky to place. I was introduced to her work at university, and her writing hit me like a bolt of lightning. It is unsettling, acidic, wicked, witty, deeply disturbing, strangely sadistic, a collision of the domestic and the pagan, suburban horror that speaks to the primal in us, and in particular the experiences of women. Through her six novels and many short stories, she established herself as one of the great writers of her time, and possibly of all time.
For the most part, her work has evaded successful film and television adaptation, the exception being her novel 'The Haunting of Hill House', adapted by Robert Wise in 1963 and beautifully reinterpreted by Mike Flanagan for Netflix in 2018. In a sense, director Josephine Decker's breathtaking pseudo-biopic 'Shirley', based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, has more in common with the latter, in that it's less directly drawn from Jackson's life as it is an imaginative fable of its own, like something Jackson would have written herself.
During the 1950s, newly-married couple Rose (Odessa Young, 'Assassination Nation') and Fred Nesser (Logan Lerman, 'The Perks Of Being A Wallflower') move to Bennington, Vermont so that Fred can begin teaching at Bennington College. With nowhere to live initially, they are taken in by enigmatic professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stulhbarg, 'Call Me By Your Name') and his mysterious, already legendary wife, writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, 'The Invisible Man', 'Her Smell', 'The Square'). Stanley instantly places Rose in charge of maintaining Shirley and the house, the last thing Rose has any desire to do, while Shirley begins a new novel, inspired by the recent disappearance of a young woman. As time passes, Rose is drawn to Shirley, to her understanding of the pustule decay running underneath their lives and the college, and through her influence, begins to put words to the frustration and fury inside her.
'Shirley' is less a biography of Jackson as much as one of Jackson's work. Watching the film is like stepping inside one of her stories, and Decker's understanding of their peculiar unsettling horror is staggering. Stepping into Shirley's kingdom, you relinquish your autonomy as an audience, instead allowing yourself to be swept up in the chaos and confusion at the heart of the American dream, where exceptionalism and ambition is a right only afforded to men, and women must continue to perform as is expected of them. Rose does not arrive as the perfect American housewife for Shirley to break, but already aware of the hypocrisy and determined to work against it. Her initial tragedy is how completely Stanley, and consequently Fred, construct the walls to trap her - physically, emotionally, financially, sexually, intellectually - but her salvation is that Shirley is trapped in there with her. Decker's Jackson is an almost mythical creature, a brilliant gorgon refusing to play the role of doting wife and homemaker, determined to protect her individuality and yet cripplingly agoraphobic. Her writing is less an escape than a direct connection with the subconscious. Like an oracle, Shirley sees what others cannot, speaks what others dare not, thinks what others could never imagine, and for both herself and Rose, this is as much damnation as salvation. Shirley's name may be the title of the film, but it is Rose's journey that we follow, with Shirley and her complex, nightmarish imagination acting as a conduit that offers Rose an escape from within the suburban prison of the American housewife.
Concurrent with Rose's intellectual and sexual awakening, we follow Shirley as she writes perhaps her strangest and most disturbing novel 'Hangsaman', which was inspired by the disappearance of a young woman from Bennington College. 'Hangsaman' is a deeply haunting novel, one that charts its protagonist's mental journey towards a breakdown in flashes and starts, side-stepping traditional narrative structure. Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins borrow the tone of that novel for their film, each moment moving to the next as a series of textures, tones and senses. It's as if we've stepped into Rose and Shirley's dreams of one another, into the subconscious of their relationship with themselves and each other. While Gubbins' screenplay is strong, it's Decker's direction that makes 'Shirley' soar, an evocation of the primal that feels elemental and immediate all at once.
A lesser director would struggle to make the tonal conceit of the film work, but Decker has such a keen understanding of not just her subject but of the story she wants to tell, digging deep into the complex, contradictory and vast inner life of these women. She manipulates a dreamlike quality, moving freely from erratic visual and aural chaos to potent and beautifully staged iconography, and the beauty of her direction is that, like Jackson's writing, it is strong enough to never need to explain itself. She also makes it clear from the beginning that we aren't watching history but mythology, our hero contending with supernatural forces and trials of strength and fortitude to come to a state of understanding. That said, this isn't at the expense of accuracy where it counts, of Shirley's wicked and cruel wit, of Stanley's charming but monstrous need for control of all those around him. Theirs was a marriage of intellectual warfare, and like Nick and Honey in 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?', Rose and Fred become pawns - and consequently weapons - in their battle for dominance. Sue Chen's extraordinary production design crafts the Hyman house itself as a mysterious labyrinth of shadows and mysteries, potent with danger and tantalising possibility, and with the help of Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's hypnotic cinematography, Decker ever so carefully dials up the tension and horror of the film with every passing minute, leading towards a giddying, disorienting and thrilling final act.
An evocation of the primal that feels elemental and immediate all at once.
When Moss and Stulhbarg were announced as Shirley and Stanley, I couldn't help but gasp in delight. Only an actor of Stulhbarg's intelligence could balance the humanity and monstrosity of Stanley Hyman, and here he delivers perhaps his most threatening performance, one where his unpredictability, in contract to his wife, has the genuine potential to cause malicious harm. Elisabeth Moss, with every passing performance, proves herself one of the finest actors of our time, and she exceeds the highest of expectations in her performance as Shirley Jackson. Vast universes of darkness and light lie behind her eyes, cataclysms as pain and anguish and fury collide against one another. Shirley as Moss crafts her as exactly the Shirley we see in her work, and every moment she appears on screen, the film itself shimmers. Her performance is fierce, intelligent, infernal and miraculous. Thankfully, Odessa Young is a superb collaborator for Moss, delivering a brilliant, nuanced and furious performance, bursting with frustration and longing. She never feels meek against Shirley/Moss, and as their relationship grows, so does the chemistry between these two excellent actors, tapping into the beguiling and ghostly homoeroticism that runs through all of Jackson's work.
My expectations for 'Shirley' were probably as high as for any film this year, and those expectations were well-invested. Josephine Decker has delivered a film far better than any biopic could have been. Not only does it celebrate everything incredible about Shirley Jackson's work, it amplifies our understanding of it and why it continues to haunt us, whisper to us, send shivers down the back of our necks. 'Shirley' is an unsettling portrait of the existential and primal horror of the suburban prison women are forced into, guarded by monstrous men demanding they play by the rules and willing to discard and destroy when their use is past or they have sucked them dry of everything they need for them, a prison where madness is not just damnation but possible liberation. It is pure Shirley Jackson and yet entirely a work of its own, with its own unique power and voice. 'Shirley' is one of the best films of the year so far, and one that you'll feel watching you just beyond your periphery long after it is over.