This was my introduction to the work of Josephine Decker. Well, that's not quite true ... researching her credits, I saw that she directed an episode of the TV series Dare Me. The IMDB lists 18 credits for her as an actor, 16 as a director, 10 each as writer and editor, 4 as producer, 2 as cinematographer, and half-a-dozen more. So I'm embarrassed I didn't know her work, and I can't compare Shirley to what Decker has done in the past.
Shirley has an interesting premise. The title character is famed writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), and the film takes place after her most remembered story, "The Lottery", was published. Michael Stuhlbarg co-stars as Jackson's real-life husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. As the film begins, Jackson is working on a new novel, Hangsaman (a real book). Hangsaman, as told in Shirley, is a fictionalized version of a true-life story about a college student who disappeared. Similarly, Shirley is a fictionalized version of Jackson's story. This is not one of those "based on a true story" movies ... the entire plot is built out of thin air by author Susan Scarf Merrell, who wrote the novel from which the film is drawn. Shirley adds a young couple who move in with Jackson and Hyman, and as Shirley-the-character obsesses about the missing student, she seems to feel a connection between the student and her new housemate. The young couple are inventions who never existed in real life.
Like I say, an interesting premise. And what Decker (and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, who I know from Better Things) do is less about telling the story of an author and her work, and more to do with dragging the audience into Jackson's perspective. Things are often a little off, a bit unsettling, and I kept waiting for a full-out horror movie, although that never really happened. What we do get is like a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for a new generation, as Jackson and Hyman squabble for the benefit of their guests.
It's more an interesting premise than an actually interesting movie. But the acting, especially from Moss and Odessa Young as the woman in the young couple, is excellent. Moss has the Oscar-bait role, but I thought Young was even better ... she couldn't fall back on the possible insanity of her character, but instead let us understand the depths of the woman gradually.