‘Shirley’ Movie Review: Elisabeth Moss IS Shirley Jackson

Shirley is not a birth to death biopic of Shirley Jackson. Instead, it focuses on one period of time in which she’s struggling to write an unspecified book. It’s probably before The Haunting of Hill House, or the first movie adaptation of that book would probably come up. Whatever the book is, this is a chance for Elisabeth Moss to play Jackson.

Shirley Jackson and Stanley Hyman - Elisabeth Moss and Michael Stuhlbarg
Michael Stuhlbarg and Elisabeth Moss | Neon

RELATED: Why Elisabeth Moss Says The Ending of ‘The Invisible Man’ Was So Emotionally Difficult

Moss nails it. While she is certainly the main draw, there is plenty of other goodness to complement her in Shirley. Shirley is out Friday on VOD, Hulu and drive-in theaters.

Elisabeth Moss is the troubled artist in ‘Shirley’

Shirley Jackson (Moss) is already cause celebre in the local community. Her neighbors love to come over and party with her, when Jackson would often prefer to go to bed early. That antisocial behavior also inhibits her writing. She’d also rather sleep than work. 

Shirley: Logan Lerman and Odessa Young
Logan Lerman and Odessa Young | Neon

RELATED: ‘End of Sentence’ Movie Review: Logan Lerman’s Emotional Road Trip

You can’t force the creative process, but Jackson’s husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) knows it’s unhealthy to totally indulge her lethargy. Hyman tries to prompt his wife to get up and sit at her desk while he goes to work as a professor. Another idea is to invite his student Fred (Logan Lerman) and his wife Rosamund (Odessa Young) to stay with them. He hopes they will motivate Jackson to work. 

Get lost in Shirley Jackson’s world with Elisabeth Moss 

One can see how Jackson, as portrayed by Moss, might be difficult to live with. She is certainly entertaining to watch though. She is the suffering artist, but that makes her entertainingly cantankerous. Her complaints are witty and intellectual. 

Shirley: Michael Stuhlbarg
Michael Stuhlbarg | Neon

Although Hyman hopes Fred and Rose will inspire her, or at least force her to come downstairs, Jackson messes with them too. In particular, she jokes with Rose about committing suicide, a rather macabre way to haze her new houseguest. 

Jackson is a showcase role and Moss rises to the challenge. If you like her on The Handmaid’s Tale and Mad Men, or in The Invisible Man, Shirley is another powerhouse performance. It allows her to find yet another dark corner to mine for performance. 

The other guests at Elisabeth Moss’s party

Moss plays the title character, so one would expect her to command most of the film’s attention. Director Josephine Decker surrounds her with other fine performers, playing characters created by author Sarah Scarf Merrell and adapted by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins. 

Stuhlbarg gives as good as he gets as Professor Hyman. He’s been a powerful character in large ensembles like Arrival, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, Miss Sloane and many more. Those movies usually give him a scene or two to push the protagonists. Shirley is a back and forth between him and Moss pretty much the entire movie.

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young
L-R: Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young | Neon

RELATED: ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: What Fans Really Hope to See in Season 4

Lerman is also solid as a young, idealistic writer crushed by Hyman’s cynicism. Rosamund bears the brunt of Jackson’s manipulations, because she is not yet mature enough to push back like Hyman does. Young acquits herself nicely with the balance of naivety and empathy for Jackson.

Shirley should be a fascinating movie for fans of Jackson. Even if one doesn’t know her work, it’s a powerful drama about intelligent, complicated people. The cast is equally intelligent and complicated making Shirley the total package.