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‘Shirley’ Completes The Elisabeth Moss Madness Trilogy

Elisabeth Moss as Shirley Jackson is the most insanely perfect of pairings.
By  · Published on February 4th, 2020

Elisabeth Moss has a penchant for captivating hysteria, the likes of which can only be met in caliber, not exceeded. In 2015, she gave us a heaping taste of lunacy as Catherine – a mentally deteriorating best friend at a lake house nestled in the wood – in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. The poster shows a sketch of Moss’s shambolic face, mascara globbed on the bags underneath her shifty eyes where it isn’t spilling down her cheeks, her hair a disheveled mess littered with entangled leaves. Her performance, across from Katherine Waterston, is so tumultuous and unsettling, it leaves you with a pinch of concern for the actor’s actual well-being.

Nine feature films, three years, two new TV series, one Mad Men finale, and one short later, she returned with an even more perturbing level of insanity in Perry’s Her Smell. Where Queen of Earth saw madness in the crumbling conjoined psyche of a foundational friendship, Her Smell found it in the tyranny of a self-obsessed punk-rock legend so convinced of her own genius and strung out on amphetamines and barbiturates that she believes she should rule the world. Moss plays Becky Something, who violently berates anyone that so much as breathes near her. She is a vile, hateful piece of shit that drives the ferocious cruelty of despotism into you like a wooden stake into a vampire’s heart.

Now, 2020 sees the trend transformed into a thematic trilogy – the kind that would be ripe for a Criterion Eclipse package in ten years after some scholarship has emerged – through Josephine Decker’s Shirley. Moss plays maddening horror writer Shirley Jackson, the reclusive mastermind behind original stories like The Haunting of Hill House and The Lottery. Regarding the enigmatic legend in the field, Stephen King wrote in his 1982 memoir Danse Macabre, “The horror [story] is an invitation to indulge in deviant, antisocial behavior by proxy – to commit gratuitous acts of violence, indulge our puerile dreams of power, to give into our most craven fears. […] It has never been done better or more literally than in Shirley Jackson’s short story, ‘The Lottery.’” Who better for Moss to continue her exploration of madness through?

Craven fear is the beating heart of Shirley and the inspiration behind Hangsaman, the novel Shirley unconventionally chips away at over the course of the film, and the film takes place in the early fifties between her first and second novel, buried in the tempestuous time and place immediately after “The Lottery” scandalized the nation and she was immortalized for her gripping talent. Shirley’s inner motivational compass points toward Rose (Odessa Young), the young, ambitious wife of Fred (Logan Lerman), a prototypical academic brown-noser who’s come to serve as a teacher’s assistant to Shirley’s husband (also professor and critic), Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), for a couple weeks (or, six months once it’s all said and done). Rose and Fred stay with the oddball couple in their decaying home in the bucolic Vermont countryside.

It makes sense that Decker was drawn to this story, just as it makes sense that Moss was drawn to Jackson, and, even more so, drawn to Shirley as entrusted to and told by Decker. All three women embody the mystifying likeness of singularity in their creative expressions. Decker’s innovative, avant-garde style has emerged as one of the most exciting revelations in the medium over the past decade. Moss’s relentless drive to challenge herself by working with directors like Decker, Perry, Ben Wheatley, Ruben Östlund, and Jane Campion has made her one of the most exhilarating actors in film. And Jackson’s anomalous ability to terrify readers, to spin nightmares from dreams like a sorcerer of words, or a witch casting a spell, is long etched into the history of fiction. Fuse them together and we get a meta-narrative biopic so extraordinarily out of bounds, it couldn’t have been concocted by or around anyone else.

Shirley’s derangement lingers somewhere between Catherine and Becky Something, but all show Moss’s willingness to get messy and ugly. All three characters’ insanity rests on a supreme assuredness – conviction in the betrayal of a loyal friend, or belief in the mythical grandeur of self, or, in the case of Shirley, certitude in the vital dissent toward the mechanisms of prescriptive living, as understood through socially constructed standards.

Shirley lives her life as an assault on normative values and engendered thought. It raises the question: is she actually mad or does she just not fit cleanly into society? Perhaps it’s a little bit of both. Shirley is right about normativity. It is its own popular brand of psychosis that churns at a static yet mean rate and, in a totalitarian pursuit, doesn’t allow for demur, or even the space to discuss other modes of being. But regardless of values, dumping red wine onto someone’s couch is unequivocally a dick move. Likewise, hurling objects at people with harmful intentions is rarely excusable.

In her pre-Rose writer’s block, Shirley is a menace. She possesses the house as severely as the sense of claustrophobia wrought by Decker’s wonderfully erratic, close-shot direction. She lurks in the shadows in her nightgown, her eyes darting in different directions as a reflection of her mind’s restless hunt for new horrors, a deranged look all but tattooed on her face. On first meeting, she despises the decency and civility of Rose, whose couth behavior is an insult to the loutish lifestyle Shirley inhabits in constant protest of the modus operandi, a career protest she shares with Moss and Decker, albeit void of psychosis for the living two.

But after a little while, Shirley sees something different in Rose. She’s drawn to the craven fear emanating from her, and it sparks a new way of being, an inspired madness. Shirley is suddenly showing up to the dinner table at night, wearing deliberately chosen outfits, seemingly taking showers, and deriding others less. She even smiles, although her smile might be more intimidating than anything else. She decides to brace the outdoors after two feverish months locked up inside smoking cigarettes and brooding over a lack of imagination.

She spends more and more time with Rose and a strange, sensuous romance begins to blossom between the two while their husbands are out screwing other women at the university. Around Rose, Shirley spews less darkness – as she is wont to do – and whispers more wisdom (“Let’s wish for a boy. The world is too cruel to girls.”). She morphs into someone gentle, curious, and enlightened, taking Rose under her wing like a hatchling that must be taught how to fly. She doesn’t mind doing damage if she thinks it has potential to inculcate something essential. In fact, she might even enjoy hurting Rose on occasion, despite how much she grows to adore her, if it’s for the sake of her chief pursuit, which is, in a sense, to set Rose free through her novel.

But that doesn’t mean Shirley ever seems normal or sane. Moss’s Shirley is insanity incarnate, woven from the same fabric as Becky and Catherine, only with more underlying mystery and less self-loathing. All three share varying degrees of apathy for those around them, but where the others’ apathy seems to be born out of entrenched insecurity, Shirley’s comes from an unwavering sense of self-esteem, unlike the toxic kind that sinks Becky. Shirley is incredibly intelligent, poetically spoken like the peerless writer she is, and driven by a pestilential hounding of brilliance.

Decker’s envisioning of this fresh discovery of inspiration is spellbinding, and her fantastical utilization and direction of nature – a staple of her work – evokes the scattered mentality of one drifting in and out of visionary impulse. The dark, dank misery of the indoors is contrasted with the bright freedom of the outdoors, which shoots through us like a bullet every time Decker cuts from the cobwebbed corners of the house to the sharp gleam of the sun rising or setting over the autumn dappled trees and the verdure of the New England countryside. Not to mention, Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s cinematography is equipped with a shallow lens, which fogs the edges of the screen with a hazy wonder.

There are few as inimitable as Decker, Moss, and Jackson, and we’re lucky to have a picture that reflects that varied genius in one resplendent collaboration. Now, here’s to wondering how much further Moss’s Madness trilogy will develop. The Invisible Man might make it a tetralogy by the end of the month. Maybe the future box set will have six entries. Maybe ten. Maybe twenty. Or maybe this will be it. Either way, Moss isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

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Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist by way of Austin, TX, and an arts enthusiast who earned his master's studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke. He thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him @lou_kicks.