Biopics have always existed in a strange limbo of quality when it comes to big-budget or ensemble films. While they have indeed created career-defining performances and been ambitious in the scope of defining a figure’s legacy, they run the risk of simply repeating a familiar narrative of legacy rather than using its unique world as a malleable stage.
Josephine Decker’s recent feature “Shirley,” however, does everything in its power to resist the cut-and-dry biopic label. Based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s eponymous fiction, the story imagines legendary horror writer Shirley Jackson’s twisted process as she writes her novel “Hangsaman.” At the same time that Shirley struggles to relate to her main character, a disappeared girl from Bennington College, her controlling and condescending husband (literary critic and Bennington professor Stanley Hyman) begins housing his teaching assistant Fred along with his wife Rose. Though they were brought in to help clean up after the cripplingly reclusive Shirley, Rose becomes close with Shirley at the same time that Shirley sees Rose as a muse for her tragic protagonist.
From the film’s onset, it is clear that high-tier performances, particularly from the leading Elizabeth Moss and her unbearably smug spouse played by Michael Stuhlbarg, inform the film’s tenuous tone. Before the seedier natures of character relationships are explored, the sense of disdain and one-upmanship that binds the two is written on their faces in the opening dinner party scene. The strained antics of a socialite professor with too much to prove and an anxious, misanthropic creative set a palpable sense of uncertainty, as both are slaves to their egocentric vices.
Through these antics, “Shirley” is able to give a refreshing spin on the archetype of the tortured artist. While the film does center around how Shirley’s depression and severe social withdrawal did have a hand in her creative process, it is also willing to show how it contributed to a bipolar relationship with her unfaithful husband and a borderline obsession with Rose as a vicarious figure. But these negatives can also be seen as the result of Shirley directly refuting the nauseatingly elitist musings of Stanley, who rumors to his colleagues that his wife is a lazy, feral hermit. In a particularly heated moment of critique, Stanley notes in self-reference that “originality is the brilliant alchemy of critical thought and creativity.” In context, this points to a huge irony in his relationship to Shirley, as the creativity and originality of her prose made her much more wealthy than him in real life. The moment slyly points out the duality of Shirley’s haptic style as one that can create resonant, original work outside of the guided processes critical theory would deem necessary, but also one that can derail thought itself as boundaries between the self and the art break down.
Though deftly helmed by the performances of this story’s real-life figures, the sideline plot of Rose and Fred is unfortunately wanting. Though the fraught relationship between Rose and Shirley is central to the film, the film’s attempts to mirror Shirley and Stanley’s struggles through Fred’s similar function as a pompous academic stifling the ambitious Rose is an exercise in futility. It does its job as a plot line that moves the story along and keeps the main relationship from being tired out, but scenes between Rose and Fred read more like labored exposition with oddly-timed sex. Fred’s apparent desire to join the ranks of Stanley similarly ends up with him belittling his wife’s initial desire to be more academic, but her growing closer to Shirley ends up dissolving their sense of agency in the story.
But with that being the primary gripe, “Shirley” otherwise holds up as a biopic that relishes in its strange yet tempestuous source material. Jackson’s legacy as a writer that wove her burgeoning anxiety into tales of tension could only be captured by a film willing to communicate that same anxiety, and “Shirley” is anything but comforting.
Final rating: 4/5
Featured image: Courtesy IMDB