REVIEW: Josephine Decker’s SHIRLEY gives us a harrowing and haunting look at the price of genius and creativity.


Elizabeth Moss plays acclaimed horror author Shirley Jackson with fiendish aplomb in this fictionalized account of the creative process behind the writing of her novel Hangsaman.

Shirley Jackson is one of the most acclaimed horror authors of the 20th century. Her short story The Lottery gives a dark look at religion by juxtaposing it against the practices of a modern community that practices obscure rites for prosperity that still inspire modern filmmakers to this day like last year’s Ari Aster horror Midsommar. Jackson’s stories are regularly adapted to film, such as Netflix’s take of The Haunting of Hill House and last year’s We Have Always Lived in The Castle. With director Josephine Decker’s SHIRLEY, premiering on the streamer on June 5th, Hulu enters the field of films based on Jackson and her work. But SHIRLEY is not a traditional biopic and has more in common with Aster’s Hereditary in telling a story based on the marriage of Jackson (played with fiendish aplomb by Elizabeth Moss) and her ivy-league professor husband Stanley Hyman (played with an equally crazed fervor by Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg). Jackson is the acclaimed writer of The Lottery by this point in her career but is bedridden and agoraphobic between bouts of mania. Her husband invites a young couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and her newly-minted professor husband (Logan Lerman), to stay with them in their cottage at Bennington College in exchange for helping out around the house due to Shirley’s condition. But Shirley and Stanley have more than dishes in mind for the couple, as there are layers of darkness in their relationship. Rose is initially starstruck by Shirley, whose first reading of The Lottery inspired her to violently bed her husband and considers the work “horrifically talented.” But Shirley comes to see Rose as potential prey to feed her various appetites.

Decker and writer Sarah Gubbins have a smorgasbord to play within their script for SHIRLEY, a film that vacillates from gothic horror to relationship drama to psychological thriller with seeming ease due to the masterful lead performance by Elizabeth Moss. Moss has made her career over the past several years from playing dismissed and demented women haunted by a lack of agency and yearning for more in life in films and projects as diverse as The Handmaid’s Tale, Queen of Earth, The Invisible Man, and Her Smell. Jackson adds to Moss’ Rolodex of riveting performances, as her Shirley moves from cantankerous shut-in crank to sensual vamp to intellectual sexual predator all to ensnare Rose in her life in various ways. As the film mimics the structure of Jackson’s books, from We Have Always Lived in The Castle to Hangsaman, the audience is left to wonder if the agency Jackson is seemingly denied in her relationship doesn’t come out in her treatment of the borders she has taken in as food for the appetite of depraved creativity she nurtures within.

Production designer Sue Chen and costume designer Amela Bakcic’s work is impeccable throughout and really immerse you in the film’s world. While Odesssa Young’s performance as Rose and her dynamic with Moss are what really make the film work. Stuhlbarg’s Hyman is no slouch either, as his performance is also darkly dynamic and the film’s closing scene between him and Moss is haunting.

Decker and Gubbins succeed in the rare scholarly biographical fiction that feels more like a horror movie, not unlike Ken Russell’s 1986 film GOTHIC. SHIRLEY takes queues from films like Call Me by Your Name and Boxing Helena in exploring themes of life-changing relationships and the obsession between a muse and creative. But Shirley stands on its own, a film that easily defies categorization but lures you in with haunting visuals and an arresting premise.