The biopic is one of the oldest movie genres. It\’s also one of the most rigid. The large majority of biopics draw from the viewer’s knowledge of the subject, only adding a few unsurprising details as they build to an almost mythically well-known moment — as important as the Emancipation Proclamation or as trivial as a Live Aid performance. Nothing disrupts assumptions, nothing changes, least of all the viewer\’s expectations.
Promotional materials for Josephine Decker\’s film Shirley promise more of the same. The poster features only Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson, author of genre classics such as \”The Lottery\” and The Haunting of Hill House, staring from behind a desk. Prominent stills from the film feature Shirley lying in bed with her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) or leaning forward to feed a mushroom to her companion Rose (Odessa Young).
Even the plot synopsis threatens the standard biopic model. It begins with Shirley in a fallow period, exacerbated by Stanley\’s mental abuse. But that begins to change when Stanley\’s apprentice (Logan Lerman) comes to stay with them, bringing along his wife Rose. Rose quickly becomes the inspiration for Shirley\’s long-gestating novel, The Hangsaman.
That sounds like normal biopic stuff, right? Shirley overcomes the obstacles of depression and misogyny with the help of a friend and finally creates her masterpiece. The same old, same old.
But that\’s not at all what Decker has in mind, something we should have seen in the aforementioned promotional materials. Look back at that poster; is Shirley glaring at us or is she smirking? In the still with her and Stanley, are they snuggling or suffering? Is Shirley feeding or poisoning Rose in the other still? We cannot tell.
Shirley may look like a standard biopic, but it\’s actually gothic psychological horror, in which facts and reality refuse to cohere. In their adaptation of Susan Scarf Merrell\’s novel, Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins emphasize the transitive nature of Jackson\’s writing. Nothing in film coheres. Instead, roles and plot points blur, as fiction becomes fact and the abuser becomes the victim.
We first meet Shirley holding court at a party she and Stanley host in their home. Surrounded by Stanley\’s faculty friends and students, Shirley appears marvelously sharp and witty. She tells the story of her courtship with Stanley, and while the facts seem appalling (Stanley denigrated the piece she shared with him), she acts utterly in control of the narrative and even charmed by his rejoinders from the crowd. When Stanley ends the moment by toasting, \”To our suffering, my dear,\” we viewers are tempted to join in the guffaws prompted by Shirley\’s response, \”There\’s not enough scotch in the world for that.\”
But if we look again, we\’ll notice that cinematographer Sturla Bradnth Grøvlen hides the camera behind the blurry shoulders of onlookers, only catching glimpses of Shirley\’s expressions as she speaks. Neither her face nor her voice, largely monotone, help us interpret her words. Stanley, for the most part, is fully in frame, but are we supposed to be amused or horrified by his admission that he \”had\” to marry to the woman who wrote the story he belittled, that he would \”hunt her down and force her to marry [him]\”? The moment never settles down long enough for us to know for sure.
Decker walks this jittery line throughout the film. She rarely lets the camera hold still, or even watch from a comfortable distance. It stays close to the faces of its subjects, sometimes pacing around their heads or sometimes wobbling anxiously, matching the characters\’ tension. Tamar-kali\’s score moves in fits and starts, settling on a theme for only a moment, before wandering off into a new movement.
Like the more soaring moments in the music, Shirley often slips into reveries that suggest calm or connection. When Shirley and Rose share an intimate moment eating mushrooms in the woods, the green foliage becomes too bright to be believed. Without notice, Rose transforms into Paula, the doomed protagonist of Shirley\’s novel, and then back to Rose. Is Rose an inspiration to Shirley, or is she just a living version of one of her characters? Does she actually have feelings for the younger woman? Or is this all an elaborate prank?
Some viewers might feel like the movie is playing a prank on them. Shirley delivers on none of the promises of a traditional biopic. No plot points come to a satisfying conclusion. Not even Moss and Stuhlbarg\’s performances seem to cohere with those of Young and Lerner. The movie never settles into one type of film.
But in that way, it is perhaps the most perfect version of a biopic, one that captures the complexities of its subject. Shirley is Shirley Jackson\’s story in the form of a Shirley Jackson story.