Shirley Is 'Prickly,' 'Unnerving'

Moss shines in 'anti-biopic' of horror writer
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 8, 2020 5:55 PM CDT

(Newser) – Critics say an enthralling performance by Elisabeth Moss as horror writer Shirley Jackson is one of the best things about Shirley, which the New York Times describes as a "gothic, feverish anti-biopic." The 1950s-set movie, very loosely based on the reclusive writer's life, begins with a young couple moving into the unhappy Bennington, Vermont, home that Jackson shares with her husband, philandering professor Stanley Hyman. Josephine Decker directs. Shirley, which was released on Hulu and at drive-in theaters, currently has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Four takes from critics:

  • Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins "weave the reality of Shirley’s struggles with agoraphobia and anxiety into a fictional horror story of sorts," writes David Sims at the Atlantic. He says Shirley has given Jackson the "unsettling and incisive" treatment she needs. "Though this is a highly specific period piece, Shirley's claustrophobia resonates loudly in 2020, especially because Decker renders it with inimitable panache," he writes.

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  • AO Scott at the Times describes the movie as "equal parts term paper and gothic nightmare." Jackson, he writes, is "much too interesting" to be the subject of a conventional, mainstream biopic. "Instead, Decker and Moss approach Jackson as if she were a character in her own fiction, which is to say as an object of pity, terror, fascination, and awe rather than straightforward sympathy," he writes. "Shirley is a mystery and a monster, and Shirley is at once a sincere tribute and a sly hatchet job."
  • The "increasingly claustrophobic psychological drama" is "prickly" and "unnerving," according to Jake Coyle at the AP, who praises Moss's performance and Decker's directing. With her fourth film, Decker "has firmly established herself as a director of intense and immersive craft," he writes. "Her filmmaking, cunning in its perspectives, is intricately tied to the psychologies—and sometimes the psychoses—of its characters."
  • Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Chronicle describes Shirley's story as "a kind of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? situation, albeit less fun." He found it only "intermittently interesting," but says an "extraordinary" performance from Moss tips it "into the realm of recommendation."
(Read more movie review stories.)

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