Josephine Decker’s new thriller shakes up the biopic in a dynamic and engaging way. 


Elisabeth Moss channels Edward Albee 


In recent years the sub-genre of the biopic has become stale and formulaic. Titanic figures from history become interchangeable when thrown into the Hollywood blender until, in the soup of predictability, they are rendered indistinguishable from one another. Josephine Decker’s latest feature Shirley is a bomb dropped into the soup, exploding it from the inside.


This bold new concoction is a heavily dramatized retelling of the acclaimed horror author Shirley Jackson’s writing process for her novel Hangsaman (1951). Deep in the throes of a writer’s block fuelled by depression, she spends her days lying in bed with the shades drawn, refusing to socialize or even to eat, and drowning herself in alcohol. Her husband (Bennington College professor and literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman) oscillates between attempting to shake her out of her rut and ridiculing her for her mental state and lack of progress. They have a complicated relationship and a difficult marriage, the issues of which are only exacerbated once Fred and Rose Nesmer move in with them at the beginning of the school term.


The narrative focuses on the web of relationships that develops throughout the following months. Fred is to assist Stanley with lectures, and Rose is to help with chores around the house while Shirley is debilitated. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? is evoked as the older couple manipulates and provokes the younger, poking and prodding at their relationship for seemingly no other reason than entertainment. Stanley mocks Fred’s intellect and academic ambitions, dangling tenure in front of his face while eviscerating his dissertation behind his back. But the true meat of the story is Shirley’s fascination with Rose, the young housewife who serves as an inspiration for both writing and leaving her bed.


Much like Céline Sciamma’s gorgeous triumph Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Shirley seeks to deconstruct the idea of ‘the muse’. Women are not passive participants in the art-making, but the driving forces behind creation. Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young give truly magnetic performances as the author and the housewife respectively. They seemingly allow themselves to be controlled, capitulating to their husbands’ whims and desires, but reveal their true nature once alone. Desire is palpable on screen as the picture fluidly morphs and shifts from drama to horror to thriller. The camera is glued to faces, eyes, legs, fingers, mouths, all dripping in psychosexual tension as the women enter a complex power struggle that neither can truly win or lose. The men are socially in control, and are permitted to believe that their control is total. Extramarital affairs are tolerated, as are comments and criticisms about writing and academic aspirations. Decker’s greatest strength is to showcase the quiet ways in which the women are able to manipulate their husbands’ manipulation, until it becomes painfully clear that the symbiotic nature of the relationships means that the idea of control itself is a fantasy, and by extension, so is freedom.


Shirley may not be an accurate account of true events (Jackson and Hyman’s real life son has indicated that the portrayals of his parents are exaggerated), but it is dynamic, challenging, and always engaging. More artists should aspire to blow up the soup.




Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Michael Stuhlbarg, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Victoria Pedretti, Orlagh Cassidy, Robert Wuhl, Paul O'Brien.


Dir Josephine Decker, Pro Jeffrey Soros, Simon Horsman, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Elisabeth Moss, Sue Naegle and Sarah Gubbins, Screenplay Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, Ph Sturla Brandth Grøvlen, Pro Des Sue Chan, Ed David Barker, M Tamar-kali, Costumes Amela Baksic.


Killer Films/Los Angeles Media Fund-Neon.

107 mins. USA. 2020. US Rel: 5 June 2020. Cert. R.