Which brings us to Fred and Rose, who are recently married as Rose is with child—a secret Shirley was instantly able to figure out. The loving couple is trying to start again with their lives. Fred shows promise as the handsome new professor at school and Rose begins to embrace her role as Shirley’s guardian. Rose doesn’t like the current living situation.
What we soon find out is that Shirley begins to screw around with Rose and her marriage. This relationship is the heart of the film and the moment that the film becomes this psychological thriller. She instills a little paranoia regarding Fred’s new extra-curricular activity with his students, particularly the female ones. As she befriends Rose, Rose becomes her confidante going on little mission or “research” for her. Shirley, personally, finds new life in her manipulations. Is Rose really obtaining research for Shirley, or…
“…everyone’s motives are called into question and questions that are not-so-easily answered.”
By the end, everyone’s motives are called into question and questions that are not-so-easily answered. Elisabeth Moss does not play Shirley merely as a manic depressive recluse, but she plays her as calculating. As Stanley, Michael Stuhlbarg is just as sinister as her “loving” counterpart. You never know if he’s employing tough love with Shirley or is just being controlling and riding the economic coattails of her burgeoning fame. It’s Odessa Young that does much of the heavy lifting acting-wise, though overshadowed by Moss, as she is the one who ultimately transforms throughout the story. It wouldn’t be fair to leave out director Decker’s visual vision for the film or Sarah Gubbins’ screenplay as they continually keep you off balance from the start and second-guessing almost everyone and everything to the end.
There’s a simple question at the end. Would you rather live a dull life of happiness or a vibrant life of insanity? I’m starting to believe that’s truly life’s only real question for us.
Shirley premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.