By Adam Ray Palmer
This has been a long-time coming for me. Ever since I missed it in February on the early festival circuits, I thought I’d never get my chance in the press circle.
But alas! Thankfully LFF picked it up and finally I was able to absorb Josephine Decker’s Shirley in all its glory!
Shirley focuses four core characters throughout the film’s entirety. We have the self-proclaimed witch called Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), an American queen of horror fiction. To accompany her is the cheating English professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg), a man who always over steps the mark of being too creepy.
To cure Shirley’s writer’s block when crafting her latest novel, the twosome decided to invite a younger couple to stay with them. Rose (Odessa Young) and her teaching-assistant husband Fred (Logan Lerman) seem to be the loving, helping-hand duo that would finally be the missing piece of the puzzle to help cure Shirley’s focus. Instead, her and her husband Stanley start to seduce the young couple in a cruel and sophisticated experiment. The mental abuse they put them through helps Shirley finish her novel, blurring the boundaries of what is psycho and what is unrefutably unacceptable when aiding the writing process.
Shirley (the film) is very reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s Get Out in its concept of manipulation but also the filmmaking style. The close-framing is unnerving just like Peele’s 2016 Oscar-winner, with the talents’ faces filling the shot. It’s claustrophobic and trapping, making you wince with discomfort. Accompanying the framing is the haunting soundtrack.
Josephine Decker has clearly done her homework on psycho-dramas. The music at times feels louder than the dialogue, deceiving you of what creepy retort is coming next. The classical compositions are constant throughout the tense scenes, building the suspense until it’s barely palpable. The film is always on the edge of drama and uneasiness, all culminating in you not knowing where you stand, just like we are one of Shirley and Stanley’s projects too.
The beauty of this film is in the trifecta of performances from Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young and Michael Stuhlbarg. They are captivating in their own ‘dreamy’ ways. We have the eerie Shirley who borderlines the nightmare she seems to be writing about. Moss’ performance as the unhinged character seems truly authentic, selling scenes with just her expression-filled face. The same can be said for the ever-improving talent Odessa Young. Her innocent portrayal in the first act is a marvel, but her tormented development is just as accomplished. And accomplished is the perfect word for the supporting Stuhlbarg too. He owns his scenes with witty dialogue and stern looks, a man that can make you recoil with a simple pour of wine – I am a big fan of his.
Overall, Decker’s Shirley sets out its stall early doors, and delivers on the blurring lines of a biopic and psychodrama well. The film triumphs in the quieter, uneasy scenes and the bigger “look at this movie” statement comes in the form of the subtle yet memorable performances. Give it a year and this movie will be on a few ‘favourite lists’ in recent times.
Cineroom’s rating: 4 stars
Shirley is released on in cinemas on 30th October 2020 – certificate 15