Shirley Jackson was a troubled woman. She had a list of physical ailments that made it difficult for her to be outside of her home, eventually followed by severe anxiety and agoraphobia that only made things more complicated. While these facts surrounding the author are completely true, Shirley the movie happens to be a work of fiction adapted by Sara Gubbins.
The story follows a fantasticated version of Jackson played by one Elisabeth Moss. This is far from Moss' first foray into psychological thrillers (see also The Invisible Man , Us and, of course, The Handmaid's Tale ), but it does offer a new performance worthy of her reel.
All the real-life aspects of the troubled author are here, while the fantasy of the retelling is embellished perfectly by what has become Moss' signature brand: less-crazy-than-she-seems, and often totally justified in her "bad" behavior.
The complicated story of a complicated life
The bottom line: The problems with Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman, not lurk below the surface — they simmer for all 100 minutes of this movie.
The Shining Stars
In this version of Jackson's life, we follow her and her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as they take in a young couple. Their new guests include Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman). Rose begrudgingly agrees to become the basic equivalent of a housemaid while Fred works as Stanley's Teacher's Assistant. If all of that seems alarmingly droll, there's 100 minutes of movie to prove you wrong.
Both Shirley and Stanley take on their projects — their guests. Shirley's more obvious about her temperament, Stanley keeps how much of a snake he can be close to the vest. Contrasting still, Stanley grows more annoyed with Fred as time progresses, and Shirley eventually finds herself slightly charmed by Rose.
Shirley has all the makings of an adequate psychological thriller. Focusing its attention on an eccentric protagonist with more than a few physical and psychological issues helps further that narrative, but in a way that can be more jarring than does it any favors. There are times where we see things the way Shirley might see them. Considering her anxiety, agoraphobia, and occasionally manic tendencies, you can understand how that might be a little bit difficult to follow. Of course, this is also done in a completely intentional manner by director Josephine Decker, so your mileage may vary on enjoyment here.
Rose and Fred are meant to add intrigue around the life of the complex title character. Rose manages to do so with little issue. Fred, on the other hand, is just kind of a jerk. Thankfully, that's not at all the fault of Lerman. The poor boy was given the role that he was given. Unfortunately, the role was that of a sentient piece of soggy white bread that also happens to be a bit of a closet ass.
Don't let that make you think that Shirley and Stanley are the ideal couple, either. Stuhlbarg's huffy character makes a comment on how he cannot abide by mediocrity near the end of the film — when he himself is just that. He's constantly cruel to his (admittedly complicated and often difficult to deal with) wife, but he can't leave her because he needs her success as a writer. Meanwhile, he cheats away in an open secret while pretending to be Shirley's biggest cheerleader to their guests.
All of this is to say that things are complicated in the Jackson household, but that's not a detriment to the film. These layered — though that may be the wrong word since everyone's just lying to each other — relationships keep things interesting when we're not focusing on the big "crazy" moments. Moments like Shirley pretending to commit suicide to stress Rose out, or casting spells and reading Tarot cards.
A story like Shirley isn't made for happy endings. This works out for the film, because their ending is more of a "new beginning" than anything. You'll have to check out the flick yourself for full details, but suffice to say that no one leaves truly happy. Though, a certain toxic relationship will flourish in the closing moments.
Shirley is weird in a way that doesn't quite feel earned. While the book the film's adapted from did well enough, and the movie itself will likely pull decent enough numbers, it feels like it wants to lean into its crazy solely by telling us about it rather than showing us. Its namesake had her eccentricities, mostly due to mixing prescriptions that no one knew shouldn't be mixed at the time, and she wrote some incredible novels. I think it would have played better with me if it used a different method of "showing" those issue rather than some jarring camera motions and spin effects.
All the same, some stellar performances all around, and an interesting enough story to keep you engaged. At the very least, it's worth it for the weird dynamic between Shirley and Stanley. Even if they are both completely insufferable in their own ways.
Theaters are closed so you get it on Hulu now!
Join Shirley Jackson's complicated world
We were all supposed to check Shirley out in theaters. Unfortunately, there's still a pandemic wreaking havoc out there, so now you get to check it out from your couch! Don't worry, this isn't the type of film that'll be too different no matter where you check it out!
Amelia is an entertainment Streaming Editor at IGN, which means she spends a lot of time analyzing and editing stories on things like Loki, Peacemaker, and The Witcher. In addition to her features and editorial work, she’s also a member of both the Television Critics Association and Critics Choice. A deep love of film and television has kept her happily in the entertainment industry for 7 years.