Based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, the latest drama from director Josephine Decker stars Elisabeth Moss as reclusive horror writer Shirley Jackson. As the eponymous author and her professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) invite newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman), a fresh-faced teaching assistant, and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) into their marital home, the plot explores the complex dynamics of their relationships. In the beginning, the young and impressionable couple are keen to gain wisdom from their talented elders, but as the situation takes a perverse turn, their marriage is put to the test.
Playing with the usual biopic conventions, Decker adapts a fictitious story about the real-life protagonist. This gives screenwriter Sarah Gubbins free reins to be playful with Merrell’s source material, and the events aren’t tied down and restricted by true events. The film works well as a psychological character study of Jackson, concocting a sense of intrigue and mystery around her, before her strange psyche is revealed to us piece by piece through her bizarre behaviour. Suitably, but also rather frustratingly, the eccentricities of the characters seeps into the narrative structure, and the motivations of the central quartet become increasingly muddled as the convoluted plot develops.
No stranger to peculiar portrayals, Elisabeth Moss is well cast in this role and it proves to be another fine showcase of her already well established talent. Authentic hair, make-up, and costume design help to enhance the physical likeness she has to Shirley, and she is always a compelling presence on-screen. Unfortunately, the other performances pale in comparison, and are somewhat one-note, with Logan Lerman’s part feeling particularly underutilised.
Artistic licence leads director Decker down a crooked path and, as a result, Shirley is a beguiling if brazenly perplexing experience. A twisted gothic jigsaw puzzle of a movie where none of the pieces quite fit together, but worth watching for the central madcap turn from Elisabeth Moss.