Diminishing returns in a single year are something that you’d very much prefer to avoid when it comes to art you consume but that is the path I’ve had with Elisabeth Moss lead movies. Starting with a high of ‘The Invisible Man’ and after moving on to messy-but-ambitious ‘Her Smell’ in preparation for Shirley where she plays the named author Shirley Jackson, I was ready to get back to the heights. You do eventually get used to the bittersweet taste of emptiness and disappointment with some projects but when it’s paired with equally empty storytelling or technical execution, it’s always a hard lesson with a film you’ve anticipated a lot.
Shirley as a movie is a quite conflicting case to talk about. For most of it, we’re locked in the Jackson house with Shirley, her professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) as well as their new housemate couple Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman). The house feels both lively and claustrophobic with the way it’s lit and how the rooms always seem full. There’s some perspective here on mental illness so the sets work for that very well, everything is just a bit off but it’s often still a controlled chaos. That would be a nice setup coupled with an unreliable narrator but the tone shifts are noticeable. Italian and French cinema seems to be carelessly instilled because there’s a lot of cheap riffing on those but then there’s a theatre play happening in the dialogue and some western drama quirks.
Perhaps the biggest factor of making it feel so empty is that for a film called Shirley, she is the least of the characters while Rose really becomes the focal point. You appreciate when you can clearly see the director’s, like Josephine Decker here, handprint on the style but when you’re constantly pushed away from the characters, who do you even care about? Shirley, Stanley and Fred are the prime example of the word ”off-putting” and when that doesn’t change for 100 minutes, having only thinly-written Rose doesn’t cut it. The four characters and the main story happening go hand in hand so when the people are so empty and vain, it’s hard to even describe the story or how it affected you. Feeling drained from the time spent and not from the emotional journey is rather disheartening.
Smileys: Set decoration
Frowneys: Story, tone, characterisation
Says a lot about the roles when I didn’t even want to talk about the acting performances. The Invisible People.