Indie writer-director Josephine Decker first came to this viewer's attention with 2014's Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, a film notable for providing the cinema with its first cow's-eye POV shot. Here, clearly, was a creative with a novel perspective on the world. Decker went on to 2018's Madeline's Madeline, very much its own thing, whether you found that exhilarating or excessively hipsterish; now she moves in further from the indie scene's wild and woolly fringes with Shirley, which invites filing under the category of literary biopic. Not easy filing, however, and not always easy viewing. As befits their subject - the author Shirley Jackson, best known for penning The Haunting of Hill House - Decker and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, drawing on a 2014 fiction by Susan Scarf Merrell, have presented us with a horror story of sorts. In Fifties America, a fresh-faced couple - young academics Rose and Fred (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) - arrive at an old dark house full of nasty secrets; gradually they come to realise the worst about their hosts. Little do they know the man of the house, Professor Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), has half an eye on the newcomers as hired help, recruiting the pregnant Rose to cook and clean while the male breadwinners are elsewhere. Nor are they aware how much their stay will be shaped by Stanley's all-but-housebound wife Shirley (Elisabeth Moss), and her fascination with a missing girl and Rose's swelling belly, twin sources of inspiration for her latest book. Instead of mounting a celebration of creativity, Decker puts on screen the demons that can dog it: the depression, the drinking, the doubt; the obsessiveness and control freakery; that leeching vampirism that tends to regard other people as predators do cattle. Nothing about Shirley is mild, and even less lovely; there are good reasons why a distributor might choose to open it over a Hallowe'en weekend.
In being drawn so conspicuously towards the extremes of the creative life, Decker's film has prompted demurring reviews from such literary-minded critics as Anthony Lane in The New Yorker, who was left wondering whether Shirley smears the Jackson name in taking the wild imaginative swings it does. To these eyes, the film's only crime is to acknowledge that writers can often be difficult sods, and then double down on it stylistically, a stance that carries Shirley far beyond even the intelligent but formally conservative Capote. At no point is this biopic allowed to slide into neutrality. Taking one (fictionalised) bad patch as a field of study rather than flapping around to provide a glowing career overview is but the first of the bold choices here: in a continuation of the Decker MO, these will fascinate some and repel others, but you can't deny those choices have been well and truly made. For starters, the Jackson-Hyman house is very old, very dark, horribly cluttered: we sense Rose could pass a Hoover around it for months, and still it wouldn't make much in the way of difference. Madeline's Madeline played out in brightly lit rehearsal spaces before finally spilling out onto the streets: it came at the viewer from the perspective of a young woman at the beginning of her career, with energy to burn or remodel the world to her liking. Shirley, a vastly more mature undertaking, takes place in the pit of despair its prematurely middle-aged subject has dug for herself or been abandoned to - and one of its achievements is to get us to consider the fate of a cultured yet depressive woman in the narrow world of Fifties academia. ("Shirley, you're too much," chuckles a nervy fellow at the faculty ball - that's the issue here, and this Jackson's tragedy.) When we head into the woods, it's so the writer can spook her childbearing roomie with threats to consume a deadly mushroom and end it all; even the sorority girls in their brightly coloured sweaters - markers of health-and-efficiency in more conventional period pieces - are reconfigured by night as a witches' coven, one of several loaded Shakespearian references.
The material demands performers willing to plunge into that pit and fight tooth-and-nail for these characters; who give us reasons to get involved, and venture onward into the darkness. Our way in is Stuhlbarg, the supporting actor's supporting actor, who makes Stanley clubbable without hiding how that clubbability masks a rage born of an understanding - accentuated by his youthful lodgers - that he's getting old and going nowhere. Lerman, an upright tie-pin, has been nicely cast as the picture of Fifties squareness; Young, who's something like an earthier Natalie Portman, is a small revelation, submitting to Rose's Single White Female-like remodel in Shirley's unforgiving image while wondering why it is she's going to miss this monster when she finally has to move out. She is, admittedly, quite the monster. I spent the summer revisiting The West Wing, so it was doubly shocking to re-encounter sweet-faced Zoey Bartlet as one so fundamentally sour, but this speaks favourably to Moss's growth as an actress, her willingness to push audience sympathy to the limit. Decker sticks her Shirley with the glasses, hair, skin and wardrobe of a small-minded curtain-twitcher, but the transformation isn't merely superficial; Moss summons a colossally bad attitude, such that even when the muse is with her ("So the writing's going well?") she can but respond with snarls ("Don't ever ask that again"). Does the film slander Shirley Jackson? I don't think so. At the very least, Shirley makes us marvel all the more that the writer expressed herself so civilly on the page; and we take away a perversely touching sense that - with the male academics away, at work and at play - this Shirley teaches Rose something about her struggles that will make her pupil less inclined to suffer any more BS going forward. (The liberations of the Sixties and Seventies await her; Jackson died in 1965.) All Gubbins and Decker have done is separate the art from the artist, and paid a heightened attention to the beetles and bugs that scuttle out in the process, as they would scuttle away from a corpse being removed from a crime scene. It isn't always pretty, and it may send shivers down the spine of even non-writers, but - as confirmed by an inspired sound choice over the end credits - there is a squirming, insectoid life to behold here; that life, unlovely as it is, allows Shirley to define itself - triumphantly, I think - against the lifelessness of so many biopics.
Shirley opens in selected cinemas, and is available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema, from today.