As far as biopics of anguished geniuses go, Shirley is the anti-A Beautiful Mind, told with less romanticism and more intrigue. While in that film mathematician John Nash and his psychoses were portrayed as handsome and heartbreaking, here, Jackson and her anxiety and agoraphobia are shown as frumpy, dumpy, and grumpy. To say that she was ornery was an understatement. Moss disappears inside Jackson's uncomfortable skin to show how she used her razor-sharp mind to conjure cruelties as an act of intelligent superiority. She doesn't flinch while she destroys someone with a blunt observation, only looking perhaps for a glance of appreciation from her equally smug husband, Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg). Stuhlbarg succinctly makes viewers understand how women fall for and stay with terrible men: Stanley is simultaneously charming and intolerable. He's Jackson's biggest supporter and obstructionist, fueling her insecurity and coddling her mental health problems for his own sympathy farming.
What's particularly intriguing about Shirley is that director Josephine Decker doesn't tell a straightforward narrative. Her tale unwinds like the pages of a book, and you're not sure whether you can trust the images being shown. The cinematography is wispy, drenched in greens and golds with a filter that's metaphorically oppressed. The story's framework has Jackson tracking down the details of a young girl gone missing to develop into what will become Hangsaman, but it's a red herring. Jackson is such an intriguing person: messy, complicated, a self-professed witch, an agoraphobe, a feminist who thrives under the thumb of a controlling husband. The film is a fascinating character study, but it doesn't offer solid, satisfying resolutions, and perhaps that's best. Shirley isn't the Shirley Jackson biopic, but a Shirley Jackson biopic: Like her stories, Jackson's life has many angles, and many more stories to tell.