Anyone who’s watched five minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of that show’s success falling entirely on the actability of Elisabeth Moss’s face. It’s excellent at hiding secrets. When her eyes need to read emotionless her mouth takes over… she smirks, snarls, exhales cigarette smoke not through pursed lips but by jutting out her lower jaw. If a smile sneaks through, she swallows it. It will be to your delight that Shirley contains much of the same, for similar and somehow even darker reasons than the Hulu show.
A viewer could be forgiven for confusing Moss’s age in Shirley, because for someone as hardened, bitter, talented, strained, and achieved as Shirley Jackson you’d imagine her to be much older than her 35 years at the time she wrote Hangsaman. (Presumably the novel she’s writing in the film. Though never specified, the general premise and a scene with three Hanging Man tarot cards suggest as much.) Though the actor is barely older than this, the performance reads much older, as though Moss was playing some decades her senior. She is weathered, lowering her vocal tone in line with Jackson’s penchant for smoking, though she’s not physically aged to look older.
But Moss’s Jackson reads “old” simply because the male gaze hasn’t struck her, simply because we’re not used to seeing women like this. Her breasts sag and her tummy bulges. She looks wrong in a red lip. She is not of her surroundings… or is she? She looks and acts as though she’s been chewed up and spit out by the expectations of post-war, American dreaming New England. Her mental illness(es) are a part of her whole person, which by nature is not for the consumption of men. Such is the sexualization of women in the language of film that “crazy” rarely translates as more than Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The only exception to this may be Misery, but even then, her un-sexuality is a plot device to keep her as neutral and unthreatening as possible.
Shirley Jackson is not neutral. But she is unconventional. Unconventional in the way that women are not allowed to be when placed out of the male gaze because of the inherent danger they exude, a danger both alluring and repulsive to those around her. Shirley imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption. She’s the embodiment of the first day you realize the patriarchy is real, when the bottom falls out from under everything you once saw and now you see it everywhere. She infiltrates minds. The dean of the English department confesses that after reading Jackson’s work he imagines taking his own paper weight and bashing his head in.
A premaritally pregnant Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) in her sweater set is ripe for becoming Shirley’s newest vessel. Rose is caught between both the horny, debauched underbelly of academia (members of which are often jerking each other off both figuratively and otherwise) and the smothering nature of the time period, with an evolved sexuality of her own that buzzes at the edges of her scenes. If not for Shirley, Rose would have become like all the university wives, both victims and contributors to their fates.
If Shirley is of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lineage, Rose acts as more Nick than Honey to Jackson’s Martha. She both torments and nurtures Rose, using Rose as a filter through which she can process both her emotions and her intensely engrossing work. Through Rose, Shirley is able to shed a layer of neurotic skin, appearing whole, almost relieved when done. Through Shirley, Rose becomes unconventional. She is now the terrorist, able to infiltrate minds, needing to shed her own skin. And on and on the cycle goes.