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This was a pretty unusual experience due to the knowledge I possessed before watching this movie. It's the first flick I see from Josephine Decker. Sarah Gubbins has her feature film debut as a screenwriter, so obviously, she's new to me as well. However, the most significant detail is that I didn't know a single thing about Shirley. I had no idea about its plot or even what genre did it belong to, and (like with every other movie) I didn't watch a single trailer. Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid's Tale, The Invisible Man) was the only reason I added this film to my list a few months ago.
I had no idea Shirley was an actual biopic of the real-life horror writer, Shirley Jackson, not even by the end of the movie... and this is the biggest compliment I have to give. It doesn't feel like a biopic because it breaks every barrier set by the genre's limitations. It isn't filmed (DP: Sturla Brandth Grøvlen) like a biopic. It isn't edited (David Barker) like a biopic. Its screenplay isn't similar to one of a biopic. Even the score (Tamar-kali) is far from being a biopic standard. Conclusion: by going blind into this film, it's near impossible to label Shirley as a regular biopic.
How is this a good thing? Well, from the very first scene, the uneasy atmosphere is exceptionally established through Odessa Young's character, Rose Nemser. The latter seems like any other 1950's "wifey", but in her first appearance, she shows that her true self is hiding beneath the well-behaved, well-educated persona. It's hard not to feel enthralled by the weird, intriguing, sometimes creepy interactions between the four main characters. The rough editing helps generate a certain level of discomfort like something doesn't feel quite right. Shirley and Rose's relationship contributes to the strange vibe that permeates the movie.
Shirley is isolated from society and refuses to go outside. Her books are filled with disgusting, thought-provoking, horrific stories that people love to read. But these are the same people who assume how she must be like in order to be able to write such twisted stories. Rose has more in common with Shirley than what their personal book covers may indicate, and these two carry the narrative in a quite captivating, emotional manner. The former is the central character, the one that goes through the biggest development. The latter doesn't change who she is, but gradually shows a different, more vulnerable side, as the (brilliant) last shot of the film (one long uninterrupted take) proves.
Elisabeth Moss was already in contention for several nominations due to her outstanding performance in her previous movie, but with Shirley, she makes sure she doesn't go unnoticed in 2020. Moss has such an incredible range of emotions and expressions that make her shine every time a multi-layered character is handed to her. However, Odessa Young is the surprise here, what a breakthrough! Excellent performance from her, definitely one to keep our eyes on for the next few years. Michael Stuhlbarg is phenomenal by interpreting Stanley, a man who can be sweet and kind as easy as he can be threatening and scary.
It's a film that warrants more than one viewing. Not only due to the perplexing narrative that mixes up Shirley's imagination (there are constant flashes of her visualizing what she's writing) with the real-life story, but also because the characters' relationships are not that simple to understand. All of this can either be looked at as a positive or negative aspect. On one hand, I was always interested and focused on understanding everything related to the story and its characters. On the other hand, the movie can feel aimless during the first half of the runtime.
Undoubtedly very intriguing filmmaking. Josephine Decker delivers an auteur piece (for which she already received an award) that might polarize the general audience due to her remarkably unique biographical work. However, for someone who didn't know anything about the film going in, that first half that I mention above can be really difficult to analyze. Eventually, everything receives their respective explanation, some more efficient than others, but the path to get there isn't linear or smooth in any way, shape, or form.
Also, Logan Lerman's character, Fred Nemser, feels left out compared to the other house residents, and his arc is probably the most predictable and least exciting part of the movie. Technically, each component is as unique as each other. From the editing to the cinematography, passing through the score and the production and set design. Everything elevates Sarah Gubbins' screenplay and Decker's directing in a way that never stops being entertaining and extremely satisfactory for any cinephile.
In the end, Shirley is undoubtedly an auteur film from Josephine Decker, who delivers a remarkably unique biopic that breaks every limitation imposed by the genre. By going in blind, Sarah Gubbins' screenplay may feel strange and aimless throughout the first half, but the intriguing relationships between the main characters and the weirdly captivating narrative are more than enough to create a creepy yet engaging atmosphere. The interactions between Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, and Michael Stuhlbarg are as fascinating as their characters, especially Odessa's. All actors are terrific, but Moss guarantees that she doesn't go unnoticed this year, and Young will certainly be in talks for the year's breakthrough performance. Technically, the score is definitely a whole other character, incredibly impactful sound design. On one hand, the shaky cinematography and the rough editing help create the uneasy environment of the house, but on the other hand, they might feel a bit too disorienting and uncomfortable. It's hard to recommend this movie. If you're a fan of Shirley Jackson, this is her biopic, even if it doesn't look like one (the greatest compliment I can give the film). If you value technical aspects, Shirley has a lot to love. However, if you don't belong to one of these two groups, I can't recommend it without first offering a warning that it just might not work for you...