Few active directors have built up a career of semi-experimental unnerving breakdowns of reality, and what we indeed see than Josephine Decker. This is a director who knows how to build visual tension, play with form and make the conventional feel harrowing, unstable and just a little terrifying. These final three attributes also describe Elisabeth Moss’s performance as real-life novelist Shirley Jackson – and it is frankly, the first time Decker has been blessed with such a magnificent performance – holding all else together. In fact, she has not just one phenomenal performance, she has two. The excellent Michael Stuhlbarg plays her husband, and together the two of them build up a degree of sick joy in torment comparable to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the unsuspecting couple coming into their home.
You genuinely never know where you have them, what they will do next, what their goals are. Moss’ Shirley is sickly, yet biting. Barely able to move, torturing herself, but finding utter delight in torturing others. Stuhlberg’s Stanley on the other hand is far more deceptive. The life of the party, filled with charisma, but ready to stab you in the gut at any time. In fact, he can shift from charming to enabling to the real-devil at any point in time – and the two of them get so much material to work with. Moss performance is the main attraction, worthy of a best actress nomination, if not a win. She is thoroughly offputting, yet incredibly charismatic. She can be monstrous and yet inspire everything from empathy to pity to respect. Powerful, weak, genius – all attributes shine through as we get a dynamic and consistently powerful portrayal of the writer, her life and her obsessions.
The couple entering their home, played by Odessa Young and Logan Lerman leave far less of an impression – but then they also have far less material to work with. Still, the friendship that develops between Moss and Young would have been even stronger if the latter had just a little more to give. However, she is still perfectly solid in her role, as is Lerman, as mostly unsuspecting foils that slowly get taken in. There are also other slighter or less explored areas within the film, such as the creation of Shirley’s new book, which often gets centre stage, as does the case it is based on – but drown out in the rest of the intrigue. These elements could easily have been magnified or dropped – though the final flashes are still rewatched – and as a whole, this may both be Moss’ best performance and Decker’s greatest work to date. 8/10.