‘Shirley’ Review: Decker’s Genre-Bending Biopic

Michael Stuhlbarg and Elizabeth Moss star in Josephine Decker's new film. (Courtesy of The Sundance Institute)

Josephine Decker, fresh off the success of her 2018 film, Madeline’s Madeline, stormed into The Sundance Film Festival with her latest film, Shirley, based off Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name. The film, which on paper is a biopic of the famed horror writer, Shirley Jackson, not only marks an interesting shift from Decker’s previous work, but also deviates from the formulaic approach to biopic films. Decker brings life into a dying, predictable genre by shifting the purpose of the film from historical accuracy (not to imply this film is inaccurate) to a true exploration of Jackson as a person, rather than just an account of her life.

The film follows newlyweds Fred and Rose Nemser, played by Logan Lerman and Odessa Young respectively, as they move into the estate of Shirley Jackson, played by the wonderful Elizabeth Moss, and her husband, Stanley Hyman, played by Michael Stuhlbarg. As the plot unfolds, the young couple’s dream of beginning a new life morphs into a chilling psychodrama involving sex, manipulation, and inspiration. The narrative is meticulously crafted within the strict confines of gender roles — proving that regardless of how much power a man has, or believes he has, toxic behavior will always lead to his downfall.

This film marks an interestingly fresh territory for Decker because she has never directed a feature film without writing the screenplay as well. She has more than proven her worth as a writer, and her distinct style as a director compliments her masterful abilities in each field. However, bringing one’s style to another writer’s work can be tricky for even the most experienced auteur. Not to undermine Decker’s right as one of the top American auteurs currently working today, as she is more than deserving of this role, but it was a pleasant surprise to watch how well her style synced with the work of both Gubbins and Merrell. This portrait of a headstrong woman, or in Decker’s words as she introduced the film at Sundance, “badass”, could not have been done as successfully by anyone else currently working in American cinema.

Much of the film’s delicate plot rests on the worthy shoulders of Elizabeth Moss. Coming off an exceptional past few years through her work in Alex Ross Perry’s 2018 film, Her Smell, and her widely popular role in The Handmaid’s Tale, Moss links up with Decker at a perfect time in her career. While style carries the film, Moss grounds its feminist themes with her excellent performance. As a complicated web of relationships is woven within a complex psychodramatic plot, Moss pulls the strings of those around her as Shirley seeks inspiration for her new novel. Her performance not only shows her range as an actor, but also attests to how feminism bursted through the culture of powerful women in the 1960s. Moss’ domination of American cinema will, without a doubt, continue into 2020 with not just this role, but her parts in Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch later in the year as well.

While the film explores the gender roles of 1960s academia, its themes are relevant now more than ever. Sure, sexism might not be as obviously abhorrent as the period in which Shirley takes place, but Decker’s main point rests in how “progressive” men attempt to disguise their sexism behind a rather transparent cloud of academic excellence. Moss nails this point home as she carefully dissects each male character in the film with her own “badass” maneuvers.

Shirley won the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award: Auteur Filmmaking at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, and it certainly deserved the title. Decker proved she can bring her unique, personal style to any body of work, and Moss proved the same. If Neon handles this film in a similar fashion to Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 film, Parasite, Elizabeth Moss would deservedly receive nationwide acclaim for her role, and, in a perfect world, Decker would finally receive the respect she deserves as one of the leading auteur filmmakers in the country.

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