Shirley (2020)

Directed by Josephine Decker; Written by Sarah Gubbins

The creative process is an act of invention where you wring something from your hands that you seem to distill out of nothing. That is of course not true, but the creative mind is really just the curtain that flutters in the breeze of the unconscious mind, making physical the invisible current that emanates from the dark, deep within. 

The symbiotic relationship between artistry and the subconscious was the central thrust of director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, and with Shirley, that element is joined by a discussion about power: on its own, how a person attains it, and how it exists between two people. 

A young, in-love couple moves into the house of a respected college professor and his wife, a celebrated author and shut-in, so that the young man can work closely with the former, and the young woman can take care of the latter. All four, under one roof, in a house whose windows you can’t look out of. 

Decker is intense about the subjectivity of her characters, and eschews close-ups to instead provide a lexicon of facial details that includes pupils widening, nostrils flaring, lips twitching, all to guide us in the emotional upheaval found in close quarters, and there’s plenty to go around. 

Elisabeth Moss lives up to her now staggering reputation as someone who can both exude power and crack her face in two to reveal the fear within, and does so as the titular role of Shirley (based on real-life author Shirley Jackson), a renowned writer both admired and feared for her writing, but privately a catatonic bundle of blankets slumped in bed. But with the arrival of Rose, played by Odessa Young, a fixation strikes and while Shirley strives for a creative epiphany with a personal importance, Rose learns something far more valuable in a time of pervasive patriarchy. 

Opposite them both is Michael Stuhlbarg, excellent (of course) as Shirley’s ostensibly affable husband who’s revealed as a soft-bellied blaggard fully aware of his institutionalized power who exploits it in a plausibly deniable way, and therefore all the worse for it.  

Shirley is full of the weird politics of relationships. It feasts on jealousy, gorges itself on simmering resentment, and with Decker’s knack for putting your hairs on end and twisting your stomach into knots, it’s frankly almost nausea-inducing. 

Deeply compelling is the central relationship between Shirley and Rose, in which Shirley finds a creative lightning rod, and Shirley a morass of manipulation. Despite its initial toxicity, Shirley does produce something akin to an unlikely mother-daughter relationship, albeit far from wholesome, mind you. 

Shirley is another fractured ruby by Decker that showcases her fascination with creation and how growth is found through intense distress. Not crystal clear and perfectly shaped, but endlessly fascinating to turn over and scrutinize, as its inner life reveals itself in a new light whichever way you turn it. 

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