Renowned horror writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) is on the precipice of writing her masterpiece when the arrival of newlyweds upends her meticulous routine and heightens tensions in her already tempestuous relationship with her philandering husband. The middle-aged couple, prone to ruthless barbs and copious afternoon cocktails, begins to toy mercilessly with the naïve young couple at their door.
To say that the filmography of Josephine Decker is weird and imaginative would be a massive understatement. With films such as Madeline’s Madeline and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely under her belt, she has made quite the name for herself in the film community throughout the years.
For some, her style and vision may be a bit too wild and outlandish to be considered enjoyable, but there’s no doubt that she has a clear voice, and that is heavily clear with her newest feature film Shirley, a quiet, oftentimes cold and somber thriller that does feel too pretentious but is nevertheless a mystery worth unraveling.
It sadly starts off quite slow with a first act that exists to set up the plot and introduce our lead characters. The film’s style is a bit jarring at first and it did take me quite a while to get settled into what the movie was going for, as there are numerous scenes at the beginning that came across as over-the-top and pretentious. Really, the whole film could be described that way. Style over substance would be a good term to describe some portions of the film, but after a while, the tension started to rise and the story became more intriguing and the style began to grow on me.
The highlight of the entire film however was the lead performance from Elisabeth Moss as the titular character. Moss is, in my opinion, one of the most incredible actresses working today. Having seen a large portion of her films, I am delighted to say that this is yet another win in her already impressive list of performances. With her role as Cecilia Kass in this year’s excellent horror feature The Invisible Man and now Shirley Jackson, this is Moss’ year.
But in addition to her, Odessa Young also delivers a strong and nuanced performance as Rose Nemser, who feels quite intimidating at certain times. The duality between Shirley and Rose was remarkably weird and fascinating. One scene in particular towards the second act involving mushrooms was so bizarre yet so well crafted that I just have to applaud it.
All of these elements combined make Shirley a little bit of a bumpy ride, although one that was admittedly worth it in the long run. It’s quite slow in the first act and it feels like a case of style over substance at times, but I’d be lying if I said that Josephine Decker’s latest didn’t leave me guessing.
Shirley may be a classic case of style over substance, but its incredible lead performance from Elisabeth Moss and bold vision from director Josephine Decker are too intriguing to ignore.
Overall Grade: B
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, language, and brief disturbing images
Directed by: Josephine Decker
Distributed by: Neon
Release Date: June 5, 2020
Running Time: 107 minutes