‘I feel a bit like we’re in the “Scottish play”,’ says Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), the husband of writer Shirley Jackson. In fact, Josephine Decker’s unconventional biopic far more closely resembles Edward Albee‘s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, as their relationship with a young couple takes an antagonistic, and psychosexual turn. Blending fact and fiction, Decker’s fascinating portrait paints Jackson as a vicious wraith who haunts her own home. Hagiography this is not.

Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) are a pair of fresh-faced newlyweds who move in with Shirley and Stanley in Bennington, Vermont where Stanley is a professor at the college. Fred is Stanley’s new teaching assistant and as Shirley is going through an intense bout of depression that leaves her bed-bound most days, Rose is forced to become a de facto housekeeper. The arrangement displeases both the intelligent, inquisitive Rose and the cantankerous Shirley. The two nevertheless slowly become fascinated with the other, as two women who seek to exist outside the constrictions placed on female achievement in the 1950s.

Josephine Decker is not the obvious choice for a literary biopic, but the experimental instincts of this singular filmmaker remain in place, perhaps only slightly relaxed for this relatively mainstream production. She takes the standard elements and skews every aspect a few degrees off kilter. Doing this brings a dreamy, sinister atmosphere that nails the mid-century gothic quality of Jackson’s writing. Star Elisabeth Moss is more than a match for Decker’s ambition. Moss’ Jackson is a toxic monster whose resentment and bitterness poisons everything that comes into her orbit, as terrifying and mercurial as any of the spirits in The Haunting of Hill House. You can tell that some joy has been gained from allowing Jackson to behave badly and still be lauded, just like male counterparts like Hemingway, Bukowski, Mailer, and Roth.

As in Decker’s impressionistic Madeline’s Madeline, Shirley becomes a duel between an idealistic young ingenue and an older emotionally vampiric woman. This is never a fair contest, characterised by a distinct imbalance in dynamics of power. The men are utterly secondary in the equation. Stuhlbarg’s Stanley is an obvious villain (a luciferian twist on the avuncular academic he played in Call Me By Your Name), but is little more than Jackson’s emotional support bastard. He is an enabler, a facilitator, and a fixer. Fred is pretty much the platonic ideal of a mediocre white male (a role which Lerman, no disrespect to him, plays very well).

The film’s luscious, woozy focus is undercut by jagged editing, which throws the bucolic setting a disconcerting realm. This, however, gives the sense that you’re staring at a Monet painting with your nose almost pressed to the canvas. Where there is clarity from a distance, everything seems to muddle and collapse together up close. It works in the way that Decker teases the writing of Jackson’s Hangsaman into the script as dreamy film-within-a-film interludes dripping with menace and sexual tension (there are no montages of fingers hammering at typewriter keys, or discarded pages crumpled up and tossed disdainfully into paper bins here). What it does do however is obscure the motivations of Jackson and Stanley towards the younger couple. Also, while obviously heavily fictionalised, Decker’s decision to portray Shirley and Stanley as childless is a strange one when the couple actually had four.

Shirley could have been a major banana skin for Decker as a filmmaker. Making a safe, by-the-numbers character study would have felt like a betrayal of her career to date. However, we’ve also seen recent efforts like Radioactive and Tesla slip up when tricksy self-reflexivity has been added. Fortunately, her stock will only have increased from this impressive and uncompromising vision. A telling line comes, once again, from Stanley when discussing the hapless Fred’s dissertation: ‘Terrifically competent. There’s no excuse for that.’ It’s the worst insult he can think of. This is an accusation that could never be aimed at the estimable Decker, the formidable Moss, or indeed at Jackson herself.

Screened as part of BFI London Film Festival and in cinemas and on-demand from Fri Oct 30 2020