June 4, 2020

GENRE | Gothic Lit – Elisabeth Moss Hallucinates 'Shirley'

"What happens to all lost girls? They go mad."
Odessa Young Josephine Decker | Shirley Jackson
Neon / Los Angeles Media Fund
Award-winning actress Elisabeth Moss portrays the legendary Shirley Jackson (writer of the chilling short story "The Lottery") in director Josephine Decker's highly fictionalized gothic nightmare of a biopic about the famed horror author. Based on the book of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell, Shirley uses hypnotic storytelling and a transfixing performance by Moss to create a hallucinatory psychodrama about female identity with a literary bent.

Co-starring a gregarious Michael Stuhlbarg as Jackson's husband, literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman, the film makes the most of its all-star pairing for an eerie but intellectual portrait of a marriage of writers. Screenwriter Sarah Gubbins takes the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? route to its story by also focusing on a younger couple living with the pair, Rose and Fred, played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman in parallel to Jackson and Hyman.

Moss' Jackson is in full tortured artist mode in a case of obvious casting that's just as perfect as it sounds. Fresh off the success of her famed short story appearing in The New Yorker, she disengages appearing as a depressive, agoraphobic mess to most aside from the stifling encouragement of a domineering husband as she struggles to research what's to become her second novel, Hangsaman.

Young as Rose is a great foil as the pregnant, young, and sexually adventurous but very much good '50s newlywed housewife. Slowly, they become fixated on each other in a strangely parasitic relationship that oddly feeds them both.

Elisabeth Moss Michael Stuhlbarg Josephine Decker | Shirley Jackson

How Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen capture the period, mood, and style of both Jackson's work and inner life creates a mirror of genres that blends yet heightens or moves past the material. It's a fascinating choice to make Jackson a figure of her own work outside of her medium but in the same (sort of parallel or alternate) world. It's as if she herself adapted part of her real-life into a work in her own cannon.

Jackson's misery and mental illness fuelled her work in the film but how she perceived the outside world mistreated her and the suffering she endured made her who she was through her writing. By fictionalizing and rearranging real aspects of her life through original storytelling (as Merrell did in her book), Shirley rings even more true to who Jackon was in life. It feels simultaneously real and surreal as both an adaptation and work of fiction.

Decker's Shirley is a captivating dissection of Jackson as a dark soul and literary figure. By telling her story through her trademark genre and twisting it through an artistic cinematic lens, the film makes her life all the more intriguing and reverent to her enduring body of work. It's a twisted vision of creativity fitting of the author's legacy.


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