Shirley, based on the 2014 novel of the same name, tells the story of famed horror writer Shirley Jackson and her husband having a young couple stay in their house. The film is a great many things, and I say “a great many things” both positively and negatively, as the movie suffers from having both.
There is a lot on the technical side that Shirley does so well. In terms of cinematography, it’s almost perfect, as almost every shot looks and feels like a true wonder. I say almost because there is a big drawback: the shaky cam. This movie is filmed entirely in handheld and it can get annoying at times, even when the direction is pretty spot on. The production design is ambiguous in nature, making it impossible to tell if events are taking place in 1930 or 1950. What I’m trying to say is this movie looks good, and it really shows you just how hard the crew worked on this set.
From an acting standpoint, everyone does an okay job. Oddessa Young and Logan Lerman are fine, but who really steals the show is Elizabeth Moss, who is going hard in every scene she holds screen time. She’s easily the best part of the movie, and gives her second best performance this year outside The Invisible Man. Jackson is agoraphobic, and there are a few scenes where she tries to go outside and we can see the pain and turmoil that lingers within her character.
Unfortunately nothing is consistent in this film. The pacing can go from a slowing grind to a fast sprint, then back to a grinding halt in a matter of seconds. This draws back even further as it cuts into the movie’s tone. You can have a very down to Earth conversation about sex and pregnancy, then the next moment you’re watching a montage of Elizabeth Moss knocking over books while sexy-clad women dance from a tree. Then it turns out to be a dream and the sequence is over, lasting less than ten seconds. This happens more than once, at one point transitioning from Moss is in a bathtub smoking to a pregnant lady with her belly cut open, bleeding everywhere. This makes a jarring experience every time it happens. Even the music suffers from the same problem, sometimes coming out of nowhere in ridiculously loud lasts. It never felt subtle.
These issues don’t stop there, as they fall into the movie’s identity problem, or rather lack thereof one. Shirley tries to be so much at once. It wants to be a period piece drama, a psychological thriller, a romance story, a take on suburban society, and even a dark comedy all at once. But never feels like any of them and instead feels like a jumbled up mess. By the time it ends, I was left wondering what the point of everything was and had no idea. And that’s a huge problem with Shirley, things just happen. There’s an arc that starts near the end of the second act that comes out of nowhere, yet the film acts like it was setting it up the whole time. But nothing happened before to set this up.
For most of Shirley’s runtime, nothing appears to happen. Characters argue, there’s uncomfortable dialogue, other things happen, a baby is born, and then the movie just kind of ends. Conflict and drama happens for the sake of it and the story ends up serving the conflict, rather the other way around. Throughout the film I kept looking at my watch, wondering how much time had passed. Funny enough, several months had passed in the story while only a couple minutes passed for me. Shirley was only an hour and forty seven minutes long, but it felt like an eternity.
This film is filled with a lot of nuance, for better and for worse. Almost every action and piece of dialogue is filled with subtext, yet I don’t think the filmmakers planned out which interactions were supposed to have meaning and which are just random. It all goes back to things just happening in the movie for the sake of happening. The result is a story that thinks it’s smarter than it actually is, kind of like an old classmate in my English class who over analyzed The Great Gatsby to the point where even the teacher had to step in and say “Harry, you’re over analyzing this.” This movie feels like that old classmate.
Verdict: 3 out 5 stars
Shirley does look spectacular, and with a powerhouse performance from Elizabeth Moss, it should have had an equally spectacular story to boost. But it only looks spectacular from the outset. If there was a deeper meaning behind Shirley, I didn’t see it. I do understand the effort that was put into the film’s technical side, but I wish that same love and care shined just as well in the story department. Or better yet: just giving this movie a definitive identity.