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Shirley is a master class in power dynamics and toxic relationships
It really is an instinct, the knack of dealing with irrational people, Natalie was thinking; I suppose any mind like mine, which is so close, actually, to the irrational and so tempted by it, is able easily to pass the dividing line between rational and irrational and communicate with someone drunk, or insane, or asleep.
So writes Shirley Jackson in Hangsaman, the novel she is composing over the course of the film Shirley. Hangsaman follows Natalie, a college student, as she descends into madness existing under the controlling forces of adult life and the men who determine those forces. Natalie crumbles, as many of us do, under the oppressive weight of those expectations and demands.
That crumbling state is where Shirley lives. A fictional account of Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and her husband Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) as they take in a young couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), the film is every bit the tense gothic Jackson's work deserves. Josephine Decker's direction brings with it a palpable trepidation between the characters as their power dynamics cross, weave, meld, and shift throughout the film, while Sturla Brandth Grøvlen's cinematography lends itself to their murky motivations and twisted manipulations.
Remember, Natalie, your enemies will always come from the same place your friends do.
From the start, we see the ever-changing roles of power in the relationships between the characters. At a party they are hosting, the charming Stanley is publicly in awe of and inferior to his wife's superior wit and intellect, while Fred and Rose are literally subordinates, as Fred is to be working alongside Stanley at his university and Rose will serve as a housekeeper of sorts. When the party is over, Stanley's overall tone shifts, however. His words for Shirley have more bite, more callousness. He, a critic and academic, is in a marriage with a stunningly talented and acclaimed woman. Behind the scenes, his only means of reclaiming authority is to keep her down, even just a little. He sees other women, per their "arrangement," his approval is necessary for her work to begin and continue, he gets first crack at reading her pages (and when he doesn't, there is a tangible chill to the moment).
Shirley is no shrinking violet, of course. But there are words and actions she will tolerate, accept, even appreciate from her husband. In a conversation with Moss and Stuhlbarg, I referred to Stanley as a "charming assh*le." Moss, however, in true Shirley form, sees more.
"Maybe it's just Shirley being in love with Stanley — I know what you mean by charming assh*le, but to me he's just incredibly smart and expects that of the people around him and expects them to hit that standard of intelligence, you know?"
"And that's something that he kind of wears on his sleeve," Stuhlbarg added. "His profession is standing up in front of people and discussing myths and folklore and music and he's passionate about all of those things. So in some ways, he has his own passion and I guess he doesn't really care what other people think of him."
Their relationship is sour, but it works for them. It is their normal. So they take their toxicity out on the younger couple — playing mind games, manipulating them, using them, building them up and crushing them with words and silence alike. Their respective insecurities and jealousies — Shirley with her lack of control over her marriage or at times her mind, Stanley with his need to be the smartest person in any given room — create damage in Fred and Rose whose own powers lie in youth and attractiveness. Rose has left school to have their child, making her dependent on Fred, who takes his cues from Stanley and begins having affairs with his students.
The dynamics between all four characters were aided by the dynamics between the actors themselves, Moss told FANGRRLS. "When you are a pair of actors who has done a fair amount of work and coming with your own experience, there's sort of a natural dynamic that develops if you have a younger pair of actors step in and they have a fresh viewpoint and they have a fresh direction and they have obviously both are incredibly smart people and very talented," she said. "We, of course, did not play games with them in the sort of like terrible, cruel way that Shirley and Stanley did. That would not be very professional, but there was an interesting and very natural dynamic. I was 36 at the time. If I'm that age working with an actress of Odessa's age, you naturally have this energy that exists between you, and you can use that and play off of it."
"As well as the time that we spend off-camera together and getting to know each other and seeing quite vividly their own particular gifts and how intelligent they are, how smart they are, how effortless what they're doing seemed," Stuhlbarg continued. "And yet they were so full of ideas and full of life. You hope for those kinds of things in those circumstances to inspire you, to find things to love in the other characters or to be jealous of another character."
Inspiration, love, and jealousy exist on a very fine line in Shirley, and the performers and characters walk it beautifully.
Shirley is now available to stream on Hulu. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.