Director: Josephine Decker
Stars: Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg, Elisabeth Moss
Fertility courses through the latest feature from Josephine Decker, her first since gathering international attention two years ago with the fierce yet polarising Madeline’s Madeline.
Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) is pregnant on her arrival at the Vermont home of renowned horror author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), carrying this theme and its possibilities over the threshold. But it may be Jackson herself who has sewn the seed, at least, in a sense. On the train there, Rose reads Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’. The thrill of it arouses her. She and her husband, Fred (Logan Lerman), fuck; an act that seems to emanate as much from Rose’s rapt experience of Jackson’s writing as the excitement of their destination.
Shirley’s husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a professor at the nearby Bennington College, and Fred is a prospective new faculty member. While he undergoes a rough assessment, Rose is to accompany Shirley at the rural homestead while she convalesces, her mental stability persistently questioned by her husband. Visiting campus, Rose passes beautiful young women straddling trees; a clique of nymphets, furthering the sense of burgeoning potentiality. These young woman recur in dreams. They dance, they return our gaze, daring us to objectify them or make them subjects of our own fantasies. An impregnated mind, indeed.
For Mrs Jackson, fertility is something more cerebral and, therefore, more agitated than all other present forms. On first meeting her, Rose describes Shirley’s story as “thrillingly horrible”; a review which might be cast upon Moss’ iteration of the famed and troubled author. Moss is no stranger to this register of her craft, having come undone for us in Queen of Earth, Her Smell and The Invisible Man to name just three. Her straddling of madness might’ve worn tired by now were she not such an expert at honing each performance to a slightly different – yet equally captivating – pitch.
Her Shirley wouldn’t blanch at the description, either. “I’m a witch, didn’t they tell you?” she says with a clipped, brusqueness to our intimidated Rose early on. Decker proposes that the methods of imagination and creativity woven by authors (and perhaps especially female authors) amounts to a kind of sorcery in itself, the work deeply internalised and traumatically birthed. New worlds are cracked open in the mind, given the long and undisciplined leash of life by their creators. The struggle then is to reign them in, create shape and form. Rose’s expectant condition starts to inspire Shirley’s latest, ambitious opus; a novel which her husband – concerned as ever – wishes she would not attempt… for her own sake, of course.
It quickly seems there’s something less altruistic about Stanley’s motivations. His insistence on proofing his wife’s work comes to feel like a last ditch attempt at patriarchal dominance in the household, and he is not without his successes. His circling belittles Shirley, cracking up her sense of self and by extension her sense of authority and authorship. She literally flees his influence to the wilds of nature surrounding the rural home, guiding Rose right along with her. From here the two women are interwoven, interlinked; a two-headed beast.
Stanley isn’t cast solely as a skulking monster, though, quite thankfully. He may be exorcising his jealously of his wife’s talent, but there is still a sense of mischievous love between them. Young love. It’s a further manifestation of the promiscuity in Sarah Gubbins’ wily screenplay.
Madeline’s Madeline was a deep dive into the hornet’s nest of creating art, and so Shirley continues this preoccupation. Decker, an artist whose work is characterised by its fluidity and flighty sensory overload, here challenges herself by working in the confines of cinema’s most rote and formulaic genre; the biopic. She vaults its pitfalls by not treating her story as such at all. This is a fraction of a life, a sliver, with a fever-dream approach to rounding out character, so we might know Jackson as a whole through what amounts to only a glimpse. A peek through the curtain. Decker’s film has the same leering, swooping, swirling experimental quality as her earlier work. Decker doesn’t seem to have sacrificed any of herself as she moves closer to the mainstream. Thrillingly, she encourages us to bend to her, as opposed to the other way around.
There’s an itchy, horny atmosphere about the house that manifests in Shirley’s agitated typing, as though she is writing it into being. But Shirley’s mental health is faltering. She’s often not as strong as she would like, and so sexual frustrations come to feel like strange echoes of psychological ones. Catharsis so often seems as though it is required.
This fluttering feeling in the chest is the restless heart of horror fiction; the uneasy shiver inside as you daren’t stop turning the pages, daren’t look away. Though Decker’s film isn’t a horror movie, it is about the feeling of being overcome, enraptured. The thrill and danger of encountering our fears is not too distantly removed from the oncoming rushes of the orgasm. All of this is tussled about in the atmosphere of Shirley, as though Jackson’s house were the central point in a vortex. The eye of the storm. This is Decker’s most brazenly erotic film to date.
Prepare to be inspired.