Much like Shirley Jackson’s own work, ‘Shirley’ is rich with unsettling truths about the world, tormented women and haunted endings. In the biographical drama, Elisabeth Moss portrays acclaimed horror writer Shirley Jackson.

Shirley Jackson herself.
Shirley Jackson herself.
Photo Courtesy of Flickr

Shirley has a wonderful cast

Elisabeth Moss always delivers scene-stealing performances and her role in Shirley was no exception. Her eyes alone speak volumes, but her overall embodiment of Shirley Jackson was outstanding. Alongside Elisabeth was Michael Stuhlbarg, who has been on my radar since A Serious Man and Call Me By Your Name. Stuhlbarg played his part as Shirley’s sleazy, pretentious husband to a tee.

It’s incredible how the movie’s casting crew was able to cast a younger couple as Rose and Fred Nemser. The couple cleverly mirrors the older Shirley and Stanley’s relationship. This dynamic made for an uncomfortable, yet rich ride. The four of them create one big, messy web of feelings and projections, which was completely captivating.

A copy of one of Shirley Jackson's most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House.
A copy of one of Shirley Jackson’s most famous novels, The Haunting of Hill House.
Photo Courtesy of Flickr.

Shirley‘s major themes were essential for a movie dedicated to Shirley Jackson.

Mad, lonely women are at the center of Shirley and Shirley Jackson’s own work. Especially in the early 20th century when Shirley was alive, women were called “mad” when they struggled with mental disorders and illness. In the movie, and in real life, Shirley struggles with depression, agoraphobia and other mental health problems that impact her writing and relationships. Then there’s Rose Nesmer, the beautiful mother to be who is driven to mental instability, and perhaps postpartum depression, at the end of the movie.

Both women struggle with loneliness due to their respective husbands’ absences and societal confines. Stanley talks to Shirley like she’s a child and is possessive over her writing. Fred returns home late, drinks heavily and ignores Rose’s sexual advances. Rose also has to stay at home, clean and make sure Shirley is writing when she is a student herself with dreams of going back to school.

My favorite part of this movie was Shirley and Rose’s relationship. The characters take quite a journey as Shirley is initially rude to Rose because Stanley is clearly attracted to her. But this internalized misogyny and jealousy doesn’t stay with Shirley forever because Rose is a sweet and loyal friend to her.

They understand each other’s loneliness, frustrations and desires. Rose helps Shirley research the case of a missing girl for Shirley’s upcoming novel. Shirley is there for Rose’s pregnancy every step of the way. And I love that Rose read Shirley’s manuscript before Stanley did. It really pissed him off, and that made me smile.

The horrors of Shirley

What’s a movie about Shirley Jackson without horrific elements? While this movie doesn’t have jump scares, supernatural beings or gore, it is haunting. Shirley demonstrates the horror in how we treat women.

There’s horror in the way society dismisses women for their mental health issues; the way society sees women’s careers and dreams as second to a man’s. The way society deems a woman unattractive once she ages, becomes pregnant, or otherwise changes, all women know this horror story too well.

Shirley gets 5/5 stars from me!

‘The Lottery,’ a horrific short story that propelled Shirley Jackson into the public eye, is about society blindly following tradition and how horrible that can be. At large, I think this is what Shirley and the real Shirley Jackson’s work gets at.

In one scene, a man asks Shirley how she comes up with her horror stories. He almost paints her as otherworldly for thinking such things, which Shirley Jackson is, of course. But really, all someone has to do is look around. Then they will have enough inspiration for infinite horror stories.