BFI LFF 2020

Shirley review – a bewildering biopic written in blood

The fascinating indie auteur turns her talents to the biopic for this thrillingly psychosexual portrait of horror writer Shirley Jackson

Nobody telegraphs the unravelling of a woman’s mind like Josephine Decker. The beguiling filmmaker has made a name for herself painting portraits of female alienation, embracing a woozy, ambitious style of near-experimental narrative filmmaking that forces you to stop, stare, and finally take notice of just how disorienting femininity can be.

Her latest feature, Shirley, is her most curious to date – a biopic, but so far removed from any paint-by-numbers retelling of a life you could possibly imagine. Decker’s fourth film as director also marks her first time working from another person’s script, arguably her most obvious foray into the mainstream – yet writer Sarah Gubbins, adapting Susan Scarf Merrell's novel of the same name, matches the filmmaker's bite.

Decker hones in on the infamous, gothic horror author Shirley Jackson, but rather than plainly reciting this figure’s life story, she sets the tale during one fateful summer (fictionalised, though undeniably pertinent) in order to bring a more delicious, dangerous understanding of the writer's mind. Elisabeth Moss plays Jackson, proving once more that no one metamorphoses more convincingly – she’s gruff and forthright, something of a ticking time bomb. And as we’ve come to learn, hell hath no fury like a woman in a Josephine Decker film.

We get to know Jackson through the eyes of Rose (Odessa Young) and her husband Fred (Logan Lerman), a young couple who come to stay with Shirley and her husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg, always a joy) when Fred gets a job at the same college where Stanley teaches. And so while the men play, Rose and Shirley get to know each other.

Rose is newly pregnant and tasked with helping around the house. Shirley has writer’s block and a mind that’s failing her. She’s trying to figure out her new book – and Rose might just provide the inspiration Shirley needs. The two women grow closer, while Stanley plays his own mind games with Fred, too. Youth and mortality are everything, and psychological abuse reigns supreme as the two couples ruin each other’s lives while cackling away about how fun it all is.

For the viewer, it’s clammy, it’s uncomfortable, it’s terribly up close and personal. Decker relishes haptic sensations: the unnaturalness of enjoying hot food in hot weather, the vibrations of a creaky floorboard, a low, consistent snore. Stanley kisses Rose with crumbs in his beard; Shirley is hyper-aware of the peach fuzz on Rose’s face. You feel every actor – magnetic, astonishing – holding their breath and unleashing electricity just by gently touching another person’s skin.

It’s Decker’s most straightforward film, yet it still feels dizzyingly original when viewed by contemporary filmmaking standards. Everything is a paradox: people are thrilled to feel horrible, the talented are also horrific, a woman’s beauty is the very thing that makes her so repulsive. This is psychosexual cinema that also serves as an education, a biopic written in blood. Shirley is a bewildering film about creativity and independence and desire that feeds your imagination – but always leaves you hungry for more.

Shirley was screened as part of the BFI Film Festival 2020. Find out more and get showtimes here.

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