Shirley is one of many 2020 films that recently came out on VOD due to the global pandemic. It is a biopic about female author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and focuses on her relationship with Rose (Odessa Young) after she and her husband (Logan Lerman) move in with Shirley and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg).
While there are exceptions, I tend to find a lot of biopics feel formulaic to me and at times can be made in a pretty dull and bland manner. For that reason, I wasn’t particularly excited for Shirley but what the director, Josephine Decker, and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins manage to do with this is remarkable. Instead of being a cliched biopic story, they choose to make this a psychological thriller and drama that highlights a descent into madness for many characters and has this sense of ambiguity that will leave you thinking about the film for a long time after viewing it.
Josephine Decker is a filmmaker that I did not really know much about so it was great to see how she uses each element of filmmaking to put the audience in the character’s shoes. As an audience member I slowly felt myself going insane watching this. The sound design can be incredibly frustrating with multiple cricket noises and other annoying noises playing throughout the film. Her decision to blur the camera and constantly cut between different handheld angles without any supposed purpose helps add to the overall mood of the film and creates this sense of immersion. The command Decker has over her craft is remarkable.
One may wonder whether the style takes the centerstage and the film loses some substance but Gubbins’ screenplay manages to tackle many heavy themes without every spoon-feeding the audience. By the end of the movie, I’m still left wondering what exactly happened. The film uses the relationships between the characters to explore gender roles in a society and within a marriage and how that may influence an individual.
Elisabeth Moss is critical in ensuring this exploration is effective as the film for the most part centres around her mental state and relationships. Just like she did earlier this year with The Invisible Man, she crushes it here. Moss manages to seamlessly transition between going absolutely insane, to being a more sympathetic character. All the other cast members mentioned above compliment her very well. Specifically, Stuhlbarg is fantastic in Shirley, delivering his best performance since that one scene in Call Me By Your Name.
Overall, Shirley is a film that throws away the traditional biopic structure and instead narrows its focus to specific themes while also being an ambiguous film that will probably be discussed for years. There’s not much, if anything, Decker, Moss and everyone else involved do wrong.