Review: Shirley

Image Courtesy of IndieWire

By Emily Webb-Mortimer

I am a great big Shirley Jackson fan. I own every book, have read most of them (I’ve been busy, let’s not judge me), and usually I can hold out for a good ten minutes before I recommend her to a new person who either humours me or is terrified by the wild eyed girl screaming about the genius of poison mushrooms. So you can imagine that when, in the midst of the horrible dark of lockdown number one, I became obsessed with the beacon of light that was the trailer for a new Josephine Decker film about none other than my favourite mad housewife. I watched that trailer over and over, it looked thrilling, weird, unique - a biopic with some flavour, a biopic worthy of the weird wonderful Shirley Jackson. Perhaps I told myself how wonderful it would be one time too many, for when it came to finally watching it (my last trip to the cinema before our second lockdown, there was no way I was missing this film) I felt… unfulfilled.

For the most part, the film was wonderful, skin-crawlingly creepy and uncomfortable in that magical way Shirley Jackson can make you feel. But then, and only now and then, it went a little too far. Take for instance an early scene where Jackson reads a Tarot spread for Rose, her timid new lodger through whom we see the Hyman/Jackson household, it sneaks into the territory of cliché. First she pulls three cards, all the hanged man, a card that only appears once in a deck of tarot cards. Then, Jackson is plagued by visions of some vaguely creepy things that reveal nothing, reference nothing and feel like a last ditch effort to go from drama to thriller that falls unerringly flat. In her use of clichéd and overused horror filmmaking tactics, Decker veers away from the kind of horror that Shirley Jackson does so brilliantly.

When Decker portrays the trademarked Jackson-esque horror of domestic life, of what it means to be a woman, to be a girl, to have your life held in the hands of unworthy men, she excels. The husbands of the film are familiar monsters portrayed expertly by Logan Lerman and Michael Stuhlbarg, the horrors they inflict on their wives’ minds is piercingly unsettling and the perfect depiction of the horror Shirley Jackson wrote so perfectly. Decker also excels on the themes she employs that pervade most if not all of her other work like female sexuality, the reality of female friendships and women’s inner lives. She recreates its beauty and its more sinister elements in a way that exercises her strengths as a director. All of this is what makes the film wonderfully unique as a biopic, perfectly creepy when it focusses on the realm of drama and delightfully performed. Unfortunately, those odd now and again moments where Decker gives in to an invisible pressure to make it a horror film proper that it becomes clunky, pointless and irritating.

However, I would suggest somehow getting to see this film as Shirley Jackson in any form should be experienced by all. Not to mention, I had more than a few geeky moments while watching the films, getting audibly excited (I’m sure to the chagrin of the one other person in the cinema) with every reference to the hits: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House, The Lottery, Life Among the Savages and finally my personal favourite and the work the film centres around: Hangsaman.

So here’s to Victoria Pedretti (who has two blink and you’ll miss it moments in the film); may she never escape Shirley Jackson.