Josephine Decker’s follow-up to Madeline’s Madeline will not be for everyone. In fact, many will without a doubt find Shirley off-putting and too fractured to be impactful. Starring Elisabeth Moss as the titular character, this is regardless a fascinating journey into a creative, obsessive, and dark mind of the famed horror author.

Young couple Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) take up residence with Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Shirley Jackson, while attending college. Fred is assisting Stanley with his classes and Rose becomes somewhat reluctantly a companion for the mean-spirited Shirley. The women form a strong bond with each other, but not one that is necessarily a healthy one.

There isn’t much plot to Shirley and what little narrative there is, moves at a snail’s pace. This is a film that requires to be felt and experienced, savoured rather than just simply watched. It’s a restless film; Decker and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen rarely hold the camera still but push it near their subjects in order to observe them. Shirley and Rose are examined with genuine curiosity and although both women seem rather impenetrable, especially the vile and cruel Shirley, the camera picks up on some truths revealed in the film’s most quiet moments.

Moss is simply transcendent as Shirley. While this is never a biopic of the author, Moss attempts to crack the reclusive and difficult writer’s tough shell to reveal a woman on the brink of either madness or genius. Or perhaps both. Moss’s chemistry with Young is fascinating; the two women seem to almost fight for dominance of the screen whenever together.

While they are merely there to support, both Lerman and Stuhlbarg do fine in their smaller roles. Especially Stuhlbarg, a gifted, versatile actor, walks a fine line between something completely deprived and something slightly sad. Lerman, who mostly has to look like a deer in headlights, knows how to give space to the more important actors. As an ensemble piece of sorts, Shirley is exemplary.

Unfortunately, Shirley isn’t quite as perfect as you’d want it to be. It goes on for a tad too long and runs out of things to say, instead of circling back to themes its already made a point of. While it’s constantly haunting and intoxicating, it overstays its welcome and could have done with some shaving in the editing room. Some of its themes also feel a little undercooked or abandoned. There is plenty of good stuff here about anxieties over pregnancies and motherhood, obsessiveness, and co-dependence but Decker seems to choose mood and atmosphere over themes.

For fans of Madeline’s Madeline, Shirley will be a jackpot. It’s a more confident, refined film from Decker and shows the director’s capabilities and strengths and lets her play with an incredibly talented cast, but Shirley partly works only because of the cast. In the hands of other, lesser actors, this would have been a rollercoaster ride from hell. As it is, Shirley is the perfect storm of Decker’s style and technique and the cast’s talents, creating a vortex that’ll leave your head spinning.

Dir: Josephine Decker

Scr: Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell

Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Logan Lerman

Prd: Sarah Gubbins, David Hinojosa, Simon Horsman, Elisabeth Moss, Sue Naegle, Jeffrey Soros, Christine Vachon

DOP: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen

Music: Tamar-kali

Country: USA

Year: 2020

Runtime: 107 minutes

Shirley screens as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and will arrive in cinemas October 30.

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