Shirley movie poster
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Shirley
Shirley movie poster

Shirley Movie Review

Elisabeth Moss terrorizes those around her in Shirley, an atmospheric if unfulfilling drama-thriller (apparently?) about an unfriendly horror writer who finds inspiration for her next story in a young couple.

Powered by a sterling cast and transfixing direction by Josephine Decker (Madeline’s Madeline), Shirley has plenty to like, or at least appreciate. Moss, who could quietly be establishing herself as the next Meryl Streep given her range and willingness to tackle complex and challenging roles, is once again sensational as the disagreeable title character. Shirley seethes with a distaste for people, her only outlet her writing; Moss, in turn, has a blast in the role.

Moss may steal the show, but lurking in her shadow is Michael Stuhlbarg, who quietly delivers a slicing performance of his own. Meanwhile, Odessa Young, arguably the protagonist, shows her range as well, even if the film doesn’t let her explode in the way she probably should have.

Explode. It’s a fitting word. Shirley had the potential to be explosive, a simmering pot where the lid vibrates and squeals and wobbles, fighting against the violent bubbles pushing upward, until it can’t handle the strain anymore and explodes in a fiery.

Instead, Shirley bubbles but never bursts, a slow-boil that never heats up. 

Decker’s directorial style, which drops the camera in close to bring to life the rich, deep colors of her world and characters, is absorbing, and yet none of her characters are. Even Shirley, as much as Moss works her magic, comes across as a little one-dimensional. And Rose (Young), the character selected as the individual to go through the most massive transformation as a result of her introduction to Shirley, doesn’t draw you in. 

Shirley meanders through its story, its strongest elements wasted by promise of something that never materializes. The trailer (which I didn’t watch until after watching the film) offers intrigue and suspense, but a thriller it is not. It hints at explosiveness, but instead it flames out early.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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