‘Shirley,’ or: Why Men Should Be Afraid

Josephine Decker’s gorgeous new film Shirley opens with Rose (Odessa Young) reading Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” on a train to Bennington, Vermont. As the story concludes, a small, gleeful smile spreads across Rose’s face, and she recounts the ending to her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), then prompts him to have sex with her in the corridor. This linking of Jackson’s writing with psychosexuality will thread through the narrative of Shirley, exposing the delight in the violence of suburbia through Jackson’s words.

The young couple are on their way to stay with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), while Fred takes up a post as a visiting professor and assistant to Stanley at Bennington. Stanley offers them free room and board if Rose will “help” his depressed and agoraphobic wife to look after the house. Despite reservations of becoming basically a hired (unpaid) servant, Rose finally agrees, and soon falls into love/hate friendship with the acerbic Shirley.

Shirley most closely approximates the intensely subjective experience of reading a Shirley Jackson novel or short story – the blurring of the lines between real physical action, the characters’ psychologies, and the possibility of the supernatural. Decker is an already subjective filmmaker and her style and interests perfectly apply to the intense interiority of Jackson’s writing and Shirley’s subject matter. The undercurrents are of women hemmed in, oppressed, and ultimately warped by social and patriarchal constructs, how patriarchy itself bends and assaults the female psyche, coming out in increasingly dark and even violent ways. While Stanley and Fred are more or less the antagonists of the narrative, the deepest relationship is between Shirley and Rose, their mutual attraction and antagonism and the angry comradery that comes of two women chafing under complacently dominating men. Shirley’s husband’s nascent inadequacies are expressed as he teases, mocks, and berates his wife, shifting from loving and gentle to mocking and belligerent, sometimes within the same sentence. Both women are smarter and more talented than their mediocre husbands, and it is this awareness that causes both the men to lash out, and the women to turn increasingly inwards and towards each other.

Under Decker’s gaze, this is a deeply feminine film, as the men transform into antagonistic monsters. Decker’s camera captures the essence of these characters by blurring the lines between distinct, third-person reality and the subjective perspectives of Shirley and Rose, both of whom undergo severe mental strain. Shirley is agoraphobic, refusing to leave the house for months on end, despite the bullying of her husband. Rose admires and fears her hostess, but comes to understand her and even love her with a complicated depth. The camera often takes their perspectives, never once subjectifying the male characters.

The relationship between the film and Jackson’s writing becomes starker as we understand that it takes place over a period during which Shirley is writing the book that would become Hangsaman, her second full-length novel about a student at a Vermont college who disappears, based on the actual disappearance of a girl at Bennington. Hangsaman ultimately does not involve the arrival of a man—although men do figure into the disintegration of the lead character’s psychology—but the relationship between the lead character and an apparently fictive element of her personality. The investigation that Shirley and Rose undertake is less about discovering the truth behind the disappearance and more about the digging into the psychology of a girl isolated and afraid at a college, crushed under the weight of social obligations and the violence of patriarchy.

Shirley Jackson never explicitly identified herself as feminist, but her works intimately involve the heavy burden of patriarchy on female psychology, anger and discontentment flowing outward from subjective narratives about women who just, finally, lose it. Shirley walks the same narrow line, forever existing in the tension between searching for contentment and knowing that, within the bounds of current society, it will never be found. Men are, at best, antagonists; the women only seem moderately content, in quick spurts, when they’re left to themselves, circling each other in the rambling house that the two couples share. But even their relationship is imbued with a startling antagonism shaped by jealousy and desire. But as the women come to know each other more, loving and torturing one another in equal measure, the men become less important, barely real figures who act as symbols. It’s a sharp reversal of so many male-centric narratives, at once acknowledging the negative importance of the men and rendering them as ciphers.

Shirley will not warm the heart; it will not provide a satisfying conclusion. What it does do is renders both a highly subjective experience of Shirley Jackson’s work through her characterization by Moss and Young’s performance as Rose, and pushes the viewer to experience the sensation of impotent anger, warped psychology, and nascent violence that is part of the female experience. It’s not only a spectacular use of cinema to render the spirit of Jackson’s work, it’s an angry, elegiac rendering of female psychology.

Shirley is available to rent on VOD and stream on Hulu.

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