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Friday, June 5, 2020

[Review] ‘Shirley’ Depicts Unraveling of Acclaimed Horror Author in Spellbinding Psychodrama

With a title like Shirley and Elisabeth Moss featured as acclaimed horror author Shirley Jackson, the default expectation is that this film would be a period biopic. The reality is anything but; based on the novel of the same name by Susan Scarf Merrell and adapted by Sarah Gubbins, Shirley instead relays a captivating fictional tale about the author and her husband. Much in the same way that Mike Flanagan reinterpreted Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House to relay an entirely fresh story, Shirley uses Jackson’s life to create something new. In this case, a spellbinding psychodrama that bends reality.

Young newlyweds Fred (Logan Lerman) and Rose (Odessa Young) move to a college town in Vermont, where Fred takes a job as an assistant professor while Rose enrolls in classes. Through Fred’s job, they meet Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), college professor and husband to renowned author Shirley Jackson. Being that Shirley is an eccentric recluse who can barely bring herself to get out of bed, Stanley offers the young couple free room and board if Rose will play housekeeper and look after his wife. Though Fred and Rose struggle against the abrasive and unconventional nature of their hosts, complex bonds are forged that threaten to tests the limits of love and derail all of their lives.

Director Josephine Decker previously wowed with abstract psychological thriller Madeline’s Madeline. Though she didn’t pen this script, she bends it to her will and infuses her distinct ability to explore a unique and fractured mind with a visually spellbinding mystery. Throughout the film, Shirley is prone to trances. Obsessed and writing about a missing local girl, Shirley enters fits that leave her frozen and locked in lucid visions. Reality in Shirley’s world isn’t so straightforward. She’s also an agoraphobic recluse with a volatile temperament, and a self-proclaimed witch. The film presents this as fact, too, with scenes featuring Shirley casting spells, using Tarot cards, and catching those around her off guard with a preternatural ability to know things she couldn’t possibly know.

It’s this increasingly complicated relationship between the women that provides the emotional crux of the film. Stanley needs his wife and her success, but treats her like a mentally sick and fragile thing. Fred looks up to his mentor in ways he shouldn’t. Their spouses’ psyches are poised to unravel disastrously by their actions. Fictional story or not, Jackson’s works and words are infused throughout. The missing girl she’s obsessed with that’s driving her latest work-in-progress? That lead to her actual 1951 novel Hangsaman.

While the entire cast brings endless talent to the fold, this is above all Elisabeth Moss’s show. She once again proves herself a marvel worth watching; her version of Shirley is lively and wrathful. Broken yet whole. Intelligent beyond measure and socially unrestrained, with a razor sharp tongue. Stuhlbarg’s version of Stanley very rarely makes him likable in any way, making it a little tough to wrap your head around his relationship with his wife.

Is Shirley a horror film? No. It does, however, offer up plenty of genre elements and a psychologically driven story about one of horror’s greatest authors of all time. It’s as much a love letter to her as it is to her fans, who will find a lot of extra layers and references to her works within.

Shirley is now available on Hulu and VOD.

Editor’s Note: This Sundance review was originally published on January 26, 2020.



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3602192/sundance-review-shirley-depicts-unraveling-acclaimed-horror-author-spellbinding-psychodrama/

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