Sundance Review: Shirley
As a budding auteur, director Josephine Decker cares deeply about form. In particular, Decker seems to carry a fascination with the arbitrary lines drawn by tradition, and how upending that precedent can change the way we understand reality. After two well-received experimental films, Decker’s focus on subverting the norms of creation bled from paintbrush to canvas: in her 2018 breakout Madeline’s Madeline, she creates a world of increasingly blurred lines between artist and art that reflects her own idiosyncratic filmmaking process. With her latest effort, Shirley, Decker has pushed even further in that direction, projecting her anxieties about how traditional structures can suffocate creative expression onto her characters, perhaps a mark of the increasing limitations she faces in her own work as her career flourishes. Based on a fictionalization of the life of author Shirley Jackson and her husband, professor Stanley Hyman, Shirley is at once Decker’s most traditional film and her most ambitious. While fans of her more experimental efforts may be disappointed, the shackles imposed by the classic story format force Decker to innovate in other ways, giving audiences a moody, meandering, incisive portrait of the creative process slipped inside the Trojan horse of a biopic. Centered on Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred Nemser (Logan Lerman), a young couple who come to live with Shirley (Elisabeth Moss) and Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) when Fred is given an opportunity to work for Hyman at the local college, Shirley infuses nearly every moment with the tension inherent to the power dynamics of the era. Rose is slyly manipulated into becoming a stay-at-home maid and caretaker; Fred and Stanley live with a youthful indiscretion at the college; Shirley is trapped – figuratively and literally – in her house and her mind. Creating the relationship matrix for these four could take hours, and in that complexity and ambiguity, Decker’s adaptation feels as much like a novel as it does a film. These rising tensions ultimately devote themselves to the central focus of Shirley: the dark, winding, messy process of creation. For Shirley, it’s her next major novel; for Rose, it’s an altogether different kind (details withheld for spoilers). But for both, and for Decker herself, the omnipresent force is the all-consuming set of expectations that accompany these creations. All three women push and pull and twist away from the strict conventions of their genre – those imposed on Decker as a filmmaker, Shirley as an author, and Rose as a woman. One can argue with the success of the final products, but that would miss the point entirely. With Shirley, Decker has stretched the bounds of the biopic, exploring the cracks and crevices of the stale genre like a creaky old house, not dissimilar to the Jackson-Hyman residence. The tension between the traditional biographical structure and Decker’s shaky, stalking, in-your-face camera and disorienting playfulness with time creates something altogether singular – which was likely the point in the first place. Given the constraints of another’s material, Decker finds ways to let her own preoccupations and style shine through; or as the famous proponent of the auteur theory, critic Andrew Sarris, might put it, she “imposes her own personality on the film.” Sign me up for the next deep-dive into Decker's mind.