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Shirley Movie Review

Written by Karin Crighton

Released by NEON

shirley poster large

Directed by Josephine Decker
Written by Sarah Gubbins, based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
2020, 106 minutes, Rated R
Released on June 5th, 2020

Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson
Odessa Young as Rose Nemser / Paula
Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman
Logan Lerman as Fred Nemser

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In the fall of 1948, Fred and Rose Nemmer didn’t have much. A recent graduate and a current student pregnant with her first child, they are broke and looking for work while they study. Fred accepts a position at Bennington College in Vermont, Rose is planning to take classes before and after their baby is born, and they are both delighted to be offered free housing by Fred’s mentor, Stanley Edgar Hyman. Hyman advises there is a catch; his wife is ailing and the housework isn’t being done. Rose is compelled to volunteer to secure a roof over their heads, but she quickly finds playing assistant to the fierce and furious writer Shirley Jackson is far more than she bargained for.

My impression throughout Shirley was that it was cruel, that Shirley and Stanley were little children towering over an anthill, crushing the hopes of those that adored them. As the film continued, I realized it wasn’t that she was cruel (although she does choose to say things in a painfully frank manner), it was that she was right. The discomfort I was feeling was jealousy watching someone see beyond sight as she sat alone on the sofa; someone with an enormously loud presence even when she was silent. I was Rose, and I desperately wanted to be a Shirley.

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Shirley Jackson was as much a writer as a prisoner. Hulu’s original release reveals her to be brilliant and cuttingly intuitive, but also shares the pain of her anxiety and addictions, her loneliness and anger, and rage being trapped in a world where so few understand her. When Rose and Fred arrive at the door, Shirley is not pleased to have a “slut” in her home when she instantly deduces the pregnancy came before the marriage. Yet Stanley’s wishes are to have someone to take care of her, so he rules that the Nemmers stay. As Rose spends more and more time at home with Shirley, her diminishing dreams leave space for her to empathize with Shirley’s self-isolation and anger towards the man she loves for controlling her. Rose grows oddly fond of the terror she serves, to a point that her devotion to her husband is eclipsed by her love for Shirley. It’s fascinating and baffling to watch.

Elisabeth Moss is beyond the right choice for this role; watching her live Shirley’s ups and down with only her eyes for an indefinite period of silence makes me wonder who else could have stood up to this challenge. The thrills she feels when she feels she has a friend, and the lashing out after her husband refuses her to eat unless she comes to the table. Somehow she shows her terror of his judgment, while easily makes jokes at his expense in the next scene, and it all makes perfect sense.

Rose, in turn, was the role for Odessa Young to lose. The beautiful manic mannerisms she adopts are more noticeable and familiar as her addiction to Shirley’s confidence grows. Rose’s devotion to Shirley eclipses that of her husband, to the extent that she’ll eat poison if Shirley asked her too. The tumultuous inner life she’s battling is all on the screen, nothing is left behind.

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It’s not a typical suspense movie, but Jackson was nothing if atypical. Her brother gave this quote to Ruth Franklin’s novel, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, “[Our mother] was just a deeply conventional woman who was horrified by the idea that her daughter was not going to be deeply conventional.” Most of the 1940s society agreed with her mother. It hurt Shirley but it couldn’t begin to compete with her mind.

Nothing could, except itself.

Clear your queue, Shirley is the film to watch this week.

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Movie: 5 Star Rating Cover
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About The Author
Karin Crighton
Staff Writer | Lunatic
Karin doesn't know anything about movies, but has a lot of time and opinions to yell into the void. When she's not directing plays in and around NYC, she's watching every horror movie on every streaming service. And probably talking to a cat.
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