Shirley, You Jest?

A Brilliant Score Nearly Saves a Bonkers Quasi-Biopic


Part biopic, part thriller, part unintentionally hilarious accents, Shirley is somehow not as good as the sum of its parts.

I’m by no means a disciple of the Church of Shirley Jackson, which is a religion I just invented for non-tax evasion purposes—suck it, Xenu! However, I’ve read enough of the Gothic author to know she doesn’t deserve a paint-by-numbers biopic, unless all the paint is black. Appropriately, although centered in facts about the real-life author, Shirley is actually screenwriter Sarah Gubbins’s adaptation of a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell, who inarguably has the coziest author name ever.

Director Josephine Decker’s ambitiously weird film is a hodgepodge of semi-obvious motifs, disorienting narratives, and accents that dare you repeatedly not to laugh at them. In a truly odd turn of events, Shirley somehow feels less than the sum of its parts, all of which are individually quite good, save for Elisabeth Moss’s goofy whispering. Like twine tightly wrapped around a package poised to vomit its contents, the score by Tamar-kali does all it can to keep things bound together, although the film does finally ‘splode about three quarters of the way through.

What passes as a narrative here is that Shirley Jackson (Moss) and her gaslighting adulterer of a husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), take in a young couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman). Jackson and Hyman dance the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” fandango, while the Nemsers awkwardly sway along. Fred is a nondescript professor/sycophant cringing in Hyman’s superior academic shadow, while Rose begins kinda working with Jackson on her novel about the mysterious disappearance of a young woman.

Moss can usually be counted on to deliver exceptional melodrama. At least, more than she can be relied on to reconcile her religion, which is often criticized for cruel mistreatment of women, and her choice of projects, which often expose the cruel mistreatment of women. Sadly, she overshoots the howling moon here, imbibing too heavily of a nondescript and silly accent and overplaying intimate moments as near parody. Unless that was the idea…

Here’s the confusing part: The film is heavy-handed and tonally inconsistent, poised somewhere between a thriller that bares its teeth but never sinks them in and a portrait of the banal brutality of 50s/60s gender roles. So why is it almost funny sometimes? Is that intentional? That’s where the music (maybe) comes in.

Tamar-kali’s score is heavenly plinky-plunky and pretty creepy. It’s also richly beautiful and flat-out playful at times. It is as if she almost invites a reading of the film that is more satirical than literal. It is captivating beyond what the movie itself offers, to the point where the music alone seems to present a better magically realistic quasi-biopic of Shirley Jackson than the film itself does.

I wish I liked Shirley better. The brazen, bold weirdness of the film makes me want to root for it. The core thematic element that condemns masculine domination of artistic spaces is great. The music is—it cannot be stressed enough—divine. But it never gels, never coalesces into something comprehensively engrossing, only a commendable misfire that is seemingly the fault of no one other than Moss’s voice coach. Maybe just crack open Jackson’s writing instead?

Grade = C-

Other Critical Voices to Consider on Shirley


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