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Review: Gothic thriller 'Shirley' showcases dark performance from Elizabeth Moss

Courtesy of NEON

Courtesy of NEON


What could be described as a second cousin to “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Two couples - who couldn’t be more opposite - are pitted against each other in a battle of tension and friction. “Shirley” isn’t a biopic about the prolific Shirley Jackson, a horror writer whose stories have transcended decades, but a fictional take that captures Jackson’s mood and essence, like what it would be like if we knew this person.

Director Josephine Decker - whose previous film “Madeline’s Madeline” didn’t work for me on any level - and writer Sarah Gubbins deliver a cautionary tale about the tribulations of infidelity and lust, and manage to capture a striking lead performance from Elizabeth Moss which, between this and “The Invisible Man,” is having a banner year.

As for the couples, one older, one younger, things start off rather peachy. The older duo are Shirley Jackson and her husband, Professor Stanley Hyman (a gripping Michael Stuhlberg). Their younger counterparts are Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rose (Odessa Young) who have eloped together and are expecting their first child. Fred has come into town in an effort to shadow Professor Hyman and tout his credentials in an effort to land a permanent teaching gig.

On the train ride over, Rose read Shirley’s story “The Lottery” and immediately became engulfed in the unpredictability of its narrative, setting the stage as the two whisk away to a nearby train cabin and have passionate sex, amplifying the two overarching themes of Decker’s mind-bending drama.

And so lays out the 1960s Vermont setting where the entirety of “Shirley” takes place. It’s the type of one location picture that doesn’t get made anymore, and for good reason, generally, it can be seen as narrative suicide, or worse, boring. Here, Decker manages to peel back the curtain and expand the one location crutch into something intriguing, creating this palpable sense of isolation.

Rose gets roped into helping around the house and looking after Shirley because Stanley and Fred are busy teaching and can’t keep up with the unnecessary load. At first, Shirley has no patience for Rose who she feels is just a glorified babysitter snooping around, but over time they begin to form a unique relationship. They’re both attracted to each other, even if they can’t quite understand how far that love goes.

Passively, in the background, is an investigation that Shirley is overseeing: the disappearance of a college student - which would heavily influence her novel “Hangsaman” - and decides to use Rose as the muse to her work. It’s a subplot that’s scatterbrained and never seems fully developed, especially as it takes away from all the conundrums going on inside this Gothic playground.

Nevertheless, tensions certainly arise, and each character - besides Rose - has a mean streak that runs through their veins, suggesting the good-spirited and loving wife has the most to lose in a house stacked against her. In another director or studio’s hand, “Shirley” might find itself detouring down a conventional path, but for Decker and Neon, it manages to elude those cliches for a more dreamlike and visceral style that cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grovlen hammers home.

Not only does it give “Shirley” an atmospheric edge, but like a firecracker waiting to explode, Decker makes it so you could cut the tension with a knife. Still, the film wouldn’t work if not for a dedicated and surreal portrayal from Moss who brings a haunting template to the screen. She maneuvers in and out of scenes like clockwork, and bolsters a strong supporting lineup who try to make magic happen around her.

Odessa Young comes close to matching the sheer velocity and intensity of what Moss is throwing down, with Lerman staggering through the motions and Stahlberg, well, he reads a room and tries to carve out his place and can usually land on his feet. Make no mistake, this is Moss’s show and when she throws a quivering smile on her face, the only logical thing you can do is sit back and admire.

Grade: B+

SHIRLEY will be available on all digital platforms and streaming on HULU starting June 5th.


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