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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Shirley movie review: lost girls gone mad

Shirley green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

A beautiful-ugly film, a work of domestic gothic grotesquerie, of women’s suffocation and sacrifice, pain and isolation. Elisabeth Moss’s performance is next-level glorious in its wackadoo intensity.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies by and about women, especially real woman
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
female director, female screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Women have long featured in horror movies, albeit too often as prey for all manner of unlikely predators, from mad slashers to acid-drooling aliens. You’d have to squint real hard to find, in these movies, any metaphors for how the world treats women, or for the shit women put up with just to get through a day. These movies aren’t really about women at all: they tend to be made by men, and they tend to sexualize the terror of their female characters for the titillation of the (presumed) straight-male audience. Any go-girl triumphs to be found are incidental or accidental.

Shirley Michael Stuhlbarg

When your husband is tediously ordinary but imagines himself wildly nonconformist…

But I feel like we may be seeing the beginnings of a new subgenre of horror movies by women and about women… and more specifically, about the horror story that is women’s ordinary, daily lives: the constant denigration and dismissal and microaggressions and gaslighting that make up the sea of everyday sexism that we have no choice but to swim in. We saw this with Kitty Green’s The Assistant, from earlier this year, which framed the abuse that women are subjected to in the workplace by powerful men — and men who aspire to be powerful — as a constant low-level nightmare to be slogged through.

And now we see it in Josephine Decker’s stupendous Shirley, a not-biopic of the great writer Shirley Jackson, based on a novel by Susan Scarf Merrell that fictionalizes a moment in the author’s life as a way of imagining what it might have been like to be in her head. This is a work of domestic gothic grotesquerie of women’s suffocation and sacrifice to the needs of men, always presumed to be more important and more pressing, and of women’s pain and isolation, from the world and from other women who might be their allies, unless we can find a way to overcome the conditioning that tells us that other women are our rivals, and so find common ground.

Shirley captures that nebulous, decades-long postwar, pre-second-wave-feminism era of women’s stifling diminishment and relegation to the home.

That’s when women get dangerous…

Such is the loneliness through which this tale is prismed, as new wife Rose Nemser (Odessa Young), arrives with her grad-student husband, Fred (Logan Lerman: Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, Fury), at the Bennington, Vermont, home of his mentor, academic Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg: The Post, Call Me by Your Name), and his wife, Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss: Us, High-Rise). The Nemsers are meant to stay for only a few days, until they can find a place of their own, but Stanley asks them to stay on, for Shirley’s sake: might Rose take on the housework and the cooking so Shirley can work on her writing? Fred seems only slightly chagrined to suggest to Rose that “it could be sort of fun” (?!?!) that she take on the domestic drudgery. Rose is appalled, that Stanley would suggest this and that Fred would endorse it even though it will interfere with Rose’s own college courses. But she is a good, dutiful wife, and she grudgingly agrees.

Shirley Logan Lerman Odessa Young

When your husband is tediously ordinary… and that’s it.

The novel, which I have not read, is apparently set in 1964. The setting here feels earlier: more late 1940s, from the music — Stanley favors jazzy proto-rock that he probably sees as daring and radical because it’s Black music — to the clothing, to the fact that it seems to suggest that Jackson’s low-key horrifying short story “The Lottery” has only just been published, which in real life happened in 1948. Or maybe the film simply does a beautiful-ugly job of capturing that nebulous, decades-long postwar, pre-second-wave-feminism aura of the stifling diminishment and relegation to the home that women endured then.

Because: Shirley is paranoid, housebound, possibly clinically depressed, smoking a lot and drinking too much. Rose gets subsumed into the housework in a way that Decker depicts with a vomitous sensuality: cleavers chop fleshily into the chicken that will become dinner; eggs are lazily tossed to the floor to land with gloopy sinuousness, in a moment of wifely revolt; all of this may be a demented nightmare by either woman, or both, rejecting the limited role they have been accorded. The script, by Sarah Gubbins (her feature debut), has Rose deeming Shirley “a fucking monster,” until Rose is invited — by Shirley — to become complicit in her monstrousness, her witchery. (Shirley calls herself “a witch,” reclaiming a slur that has been hurled at her. Moss’s performance is next-level glorious in its wackadoo intensity, suggesting that her character may actually believe she has supernatural abilities.) I will say only this: mushrooms. It’s one of the most startling, and most multilayered, and more perceptive scenes on film this year. If you don’t understand its power, ask a woman to explain it to you. (Maybe I’ll write more about it once it’s no longer a spoiler.) This is when Rose becomes a monster, too, which is just a way of saying that she is a fully alive woman who understands that her place in the world is too small a one, and so rejects it.

Shirley Elisabeth Moss Odessa Young

Women getting dangerously free…

In a lesser film, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker than Decker and lesser storytellers than Gubbins and Merrell, Shirley might feel grubby and obvious. For the plot ostensibly hangs on the notion that Shirley is inspired for her next work of fiction by how a female university student has gone missing in seemingly seedy circumstances, and how Rose is seduced into helping Shirley with some research into the mystery. But the beauty of what Shirley does comes in how it takes what would have been the central titillation of another version of this story — ooo, the coed was fucking a professor, wasn’t she? and he committed violence against her, didn’t he? — and morphs it into a quotidian tragedy that any woman, Shirley and Rose included, can identify with.

Shirley is a story about women who make art — maybe a novel, maybe their own life — by taking unspoken lessons from women who can no longer speak. This is a tale about how women sublimate agony to which they cannot even put a name by contemplating death and courting disruption. It is a female rage of a bygone era that remains very pertinent today.


Shirley debuts on Curzon Home Cinema in the UK on October 30th.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other new films.



green light 5 stars

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Shirley (2020) | directed by Josephine Decker
US/Can release: Jun 05 2020 (VOD)
UK/Ire release: Oct 30 2020 (VOD same day)

MPAA: rated R for sexual content, nudity, language and brief disturbing images
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody images, sex, language)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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