The opening scene of Shirley sets the stage for the kind of women we can expect to take us on this strange, seductive journey. And even in a time where I’m pretty sure we need to abolish both the police and white people as a whole, I found myself excited by a young white woman named Rose, sometimes called Rosie (Odessa Young). Riding the train. Engrossed in a New Yorker story called “The Lottery.” She gets to the ending, and breathlessly tells her husband Fred (Logan Lerman) how it went down. How a woman was stoned to death by an entire town … and her own children, too. Her husband is repulsed, and because Rose is a gorgeous white woman with a stunning red lip, and those sweet, wavy 1950s curls, we expect her to be repulsed as well.
But she’s not. She’s fascinated, thrilled, horrified … and turned on. ‘Okay,’ I thought to myself, as Rosie, high off Shirley Jackson’s haunting story, fucks her husband in the train bathroom. “You got me. I’m in.”
And I was still in, as I’m sure you were, when we, along with Rose and her husband, make it to the home of horror author Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), where Jackson and her husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbargh, incredible as always), are holding court and celebrating the author’s latest work. Moss’s performance doesn’t always land perfectly in Shirley, but as a duo, she and Stuhlbarg are engaging to watch. It’s even more true for the duo of Shirley and Rose, who meet at the party, where Rose introduces herself as the wife of Stanley’s new assistant. Shirley, a curmudgeon disinterested in all manner of small talk, and seemingly unimpressed with anyone in her fanbase, tries to wave her off. But Rose won’t have it; she’s not like the other girls, the other casual fans of Shirley’s work. (And after that opening scene, we believe her.) She’s different, she promises Shirley. It’s a promise made by the film, too. And it’s a promise that isn’t completely honored.
After the success of her short story, Shirley tells Stanley that she is planning to do the unthinkable next—she will attempt a novel. He begs her to reconsider, pointing out that her struggles with depression make the difficult task of finishing a novel even more impossible. More to the point of this story, he also insists, as only a misogynist can, that she has chosen the most boring subject ever: a single, white female college student who recently disappeared. She is a nobody, according to the great professor Stanley. (You can almost hear him saying, “I never noticed her, or fucked her, or wanted to fuck her—so how is she deserving of an entire novel?”) It’s a great moment that sets the tone for this relationship and for the rest of the movie. A brilliant writer feels compelled to tell the story of a woman she connects with on some level (Paula), despite having never met her. The arrival of another woman (Rose) tugs at something inside of her, and propels her forward. In spite of her husband’s protestations, and in spite of the fact that Rose has been relegated to a maid and caregiver by the men of the house, Shirley sets out on this new project.
Shirley makes it abundantly clear that the men of the house are consistent roadblocks to the creativity of the movie’s protagonists, and to the completion of this project. This alone poses a problem for the movie because it’s a story we’ve heard before. Yes, we already know that men tend to ruin everything, and the film may have been more powerful had it focused entirely on the more compelling story (one we don’t see nearly enough) of two women who become a haunting threesome (when we include the absence/presence of Paula), for the sake of a particular work of art. It’s in this space that Shirley excels. In its Portrait of a Lady on Fire-esque tale of two women, on an intimate, life-altering adventure, daring to tell a story no one really wants to hear—because it’s the story of an unspectacular, lost girl.
Writers Sarah Gubbins (I Love Dick) and director Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline) deliver on the strange dynamic between Rose and Shirley in so many ways, especially in the beginning and middle of the film. As the women collaborate on this secret project, Rose and Shirley’s relationship speaks to the depth of female friendships. These relationships can be so powerful in the way they inform art, in the way there is a trust in them like no other, in the way where sometimes your friend reads your tarot cards, and sometimes you must defend your friend against her shitty husband. All of this is explored, and then—and then!—There is this wonderful, erotic element that we so rarely give space to. A [very straight] girlfriend in college used to make fun of me for spooning her when we shared a bed at night, for curling myself into her back so I could fall asleep. She would do my makeup when I had a date, and I’d always jokingly lick her finger, or lean my face into her hands tenderly as she tried to fix the eye shadow I’d consistently fuck up. It’s not the same as what’s happening between Rosie and Shirley, but it exists in that same space of a relationship that feels like so much more than a friendship—and even more valuable than a romantic partnership. When Rosie and Shirley play footsie under the table, when Rosie stands between Shirley’s legs on the porch, and slowly leans in, it’s perfect. All these secrets they keep from their husbands— creative and intellectual secrets, and this nameless something else between them—it all feels so right.
Rosie may not be clairvoyant or have the ability to read cards, or have visions, like Shirley, but her character is also crafted to be strange, and unpredictably different from what we expect. When she stands in the kitchen, pregnant with her first child, and slowly, deliberately drops fresh eggs onto the floor, when she takes an impromptu mudbath of sorts, the longing looks she gives to this silent Greek chorus of women who appear throughout the film, the way she is so sexually open with her husband, and so repulsed by the advances of Stanley—it all feels like it’s building to an ending far stranger than the one we get.
With such a fascinating “friendship” at work, Shirley could have spent less time on the impact of the husbands on the creative and personal endeavors of their wives, but it doesn’t. Instead, it presents Stanley and Fred as philandering distractions for Shirley and Rosie at the least—and cruel, emotionally manipulative partners at the worst. Which is why it’s all the more disappointing when Stanley and Fred suddenly become worth fighting over, in one of the film’s pivotal scenes. Here is where Shirley loses its way. When Rose realizes her and her husband will finally be moving out of Shirley’s home, she panics. She does something desperate in an attempt to create a wedge between Shirley and her husband. She writes Paula’s name down on a library card, so as to implicate Stanley in the young woman’s disappearance. It’s a powerful idea, and it’s my favorite part of this movie, or rather, it holds within it my favorite aspect of this movie—a portrait of a relationship that goes beyond the bounds of “female friendship” and into murkier, more interesting waters. It reminds me of the moment when my friend—the one whose back I used to curl myself into—stopped taking my calls. I panicked. I felt desperate, helpless. Rose’s desperation to remain a part of Shirley’s life makes perfect sense. Rose’s realization that the last thing she wants is to move into a home with just her husband and new baby is a powerful realization. Her willingness to suggest that Stanley might have gone so far as to murder a young woman he was sleeping with—all because she loves Shirley and deeply cherishes what they have—is the strangeness promised us at the start of the film.
But the scene takes a deeply disappointing turn. Shirley immediately knows it’s a trick, shreds and devours the library card with Paula’s name on it, aligning herself firmly with …. her husband? The creep who spends every scene with Rose trying to fuck her? The husband whose mistress boldly insults Shirley at every chance she gets? Shirley calls out Rose for her lie, and when Rose reminds her that Stanley is sleeping with another woman, Shirley reveals to Rose that her husband is a philanderer too. And we have a Real Housewives-type scene in a movie where it doesn’t belong, as two smart women sit in a room arguing about whose husband is the bigger whore. Rose then turns her anger towards Shirley—how could Shirley have waited this long to tell her that she knew her husband was cheating? Rose, this wonderfully strange, egg-smashing, shape-shifting-esque character who is also brilliant enough to attract the likes of Shirley, didn’t know her husband (who literally comes home drunk and “too tired” to have sex in one scene) was cheating? More importantly … Rose … cares?
Everything about Rose tells us that she’s smart enough to know when she’s being lied to every night, and everything good about the film is so focused on the relationship between Shirley and Rose that it makes the men, and their cheating, an afterthought—until it suddenly and inexplicably isn’t. To turn Rosie into exactly what she doesn’t want to be does a disservice to her character and to the portrait of this relationship. The character is devastated by Shirley’s reveal that Fred is cheating, and it rings false. And it’s not the only time it happens in the film.
Shirley is not exactly being betrayed in the same way as Rose, as she knows that Stanley is sleeping with another woman, and they have an understanding of sorts. It’s perfectly believable, until Shirley suddenly insists on leaving her home for the first time in ages, for the sole purpose of making The Other Woman uncomfortable at a dinner party. After being abandoned by Stanley at the party, and later Rose (who’s off looking for her own husband), she picks a fight. We watch as Shirley boldly lays claim to her man: “You’d bore him to death in a week,” she hisses at the other woman, after gleefully ruining her couch with red wine. (I’ll admit—that part was fun). Whether this exchange ever happened or not, whether this was true to the real life of Shirley Jackson, whether this came from the original source (Susan Scarf Merrell’s novel) or not is irrelevant, because the scene works directly against the beauty of the film. Like the argument between Rose and Shirley, it places an unwarranted emphasis on the troubling [straight] relationships in the movie, rather than the complicated [queer] friendship at the center.
In their meet-cute at the top of the movie, Rose gushes about the short story to Shirley, saying, “When I read it, it made me feel thrillingly horrible.” Thrillingly horrible is the space I hoped the film would occupy. And it almost does, but then retreats to tropes like The Other Woman, and Mean Husband Who Also Cheats when it doesn’t have to. In other words, it’s not that Shirley and Rosie shouldn’t have had a falling out—they absolutely should have. But that their falling out was presented as an argument over who had the better shitty husband is problematic. Rose’s storyline feels especially wronged by the film; nothing about her character says that she would have been so devastated by the most cliché of clichés (husband cheating on pregnant wife), that she’d think of throwing herself over a cliff. At the very least, Rosie should have shoved that crying ass baby in his hands when she found Fred galavanting on campus, and stormed off. Had she done so, I might have believed one of her last lines to him, where she vows to never go back to being his sweet little wifey. This is a confusing moment because I thought I was watching a movie where she already wasn’t that person. Perhaps that’s just the film I wanted to watch. I remember getting excited hearing that line from the trailer: “What happens to all lost girls? They go mad.” In Shirley, it’s too often the bad husbands driving the lost girls mad; I had hoped for something much stranger.
None of these aforementioned scenes disappoint as much as the final scene.Our hero, Shirley Jackson, sits at the dinner table, waiting with bated breath. We’ve never seen her so nervous, this whole movie. And for what? For her husband to come to the table and finally tell her what he thinks of the novel. The novel he callously told her was a waste of time. The novel he told her she was too weak to write. The novel he was furious about not getting to read, during the entire film because she only shared pages and ideas with Rose—the person with whom she knew the novel was safe. It’s true that Stanley is presented as more than just a shitty husband; when he’s not being shitty, he is her partner, her trusted critic. He can be cruel, but it’s clear he wants her to beat her depression. Nonetheless, the story as a whole villainizes him in such a clear way (and Stuhlbarg’s performance as the self-obsessed, douchey professor who always has food in his beard when he’s trying to force a woman young enough to be his daughter is so powerful), highlighting him as a major block to her telling her story, and Paula’s story, that it cannot be bought back in the end. Even when he declares the novel, “brilliant.” Especially when!
Moss’s performance during this final moment is incredible. As Stanley raves about the draft, she lets out this sigh, and fights to hold back tears. When she can speak, she admits that this particular story, “hurts more than the others.” We know that she means that telling and imagining Paula’s story, while battling her own demons, was an incredibly difficult task. But the meaning behind her words, and Moss’s performance in this scene cannot resolve the fact that we, the audience, never gave one fuck about what Stanley thought of her book. And we, the audience, were presented with two women who we hoped, just this once, might not give a fuck about the approval of their husbands, too. Shirley and Stanley dance together after dinner, and this dance is, in so many ways, an insult to one of the best lines of the movie. When Shirley looks at her husband from across the dinner table and declares, “It’s a rare thing to find someone who doesn’t merely feed you, but anticipates your needs day after day … who stokes your appetite and leaves you feeling filled.” She’s talking about Rose, of course. Because it was Rose who filled her. Rose who kept her alive, and who kept Paula’s story alive. Rose helped her finish this brilliant novel, the kind of work that a man couldn’t even understand until every blessed word was spelled out for him. It was Rose who deserved this final dance. Not just because it’s what I wanted for Shirley and Rose, but because it’s the story that Shirley itself wanted to tell. Two lost girls (three, including one who doesn’t, technically, exist anymore) go on an adventure, and develop a strange bond, equal parts thrilling and horrible, a bond that they cannot shake. The men are, for once, in the peripheral. The only jealousy and passion that exists, exists in the space of their adventure. It’s an adventure that few even care about because it’s an adventure for the lost girls, the mad girls, the voiceless girls dancing outside. It’s an adventure for the girls who hunger for something stranger. Girls who demand it. I’d watch that movie.
Director: Josephine Decker
Writers: Sarah Gubbins (screenplay); Susan Scarf Merrell (novel)
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Michael Stuhlbarg
Release Date: June 5, 2020 (Hulu)
Shannon M. Houston is a film and TV critic, and a TV writer on Little Fires Everywhere and Lovecraft Country. She is the former TV editor for Paste, and probably has more babies than you. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.