For all intents and purposes, Rose Nesmer never existed. In a “biopic” carrying the name of one of the horror genre’s luminaries, the main character of Shirley (dir. Josephine Decker, 2020) is a woman who was never born, let alone a woman who lived with Shirley Jackson for a year of her life. But, ultimately, Decker proves that her existence is unimportant to the story of Jackson, the revolutionary horror author of “The Lottery” and House on Haunted Hill, that she is trying to portray.
Rose works as a catalyst to start the audience’s journey into Decker’s world of Shirley Jackson. She is the milquetoast housewife to a milquetoast college professor who moves into the house of Shirley Jackson and her husband, Stanley Hyman. At the beginning of the film, Decker imbues the fictitious events of the film with the same kind of anxiety and dread the author would be known for. The director’s vision of Jackson is psychologically cruel to Rose, and the couple’s residence at the Jackson home quickly unveils the pathology of Jackson and Hyman’s marriage, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere for the viewer. This atmosphere is fortified by Decker’s use of a kinetic camera and shots of only portions of faces to give us a sense of heightened discomfort. This disorientation is a cinematic reflection of Shirley Jackson’s own literary style while also being steeped in her real-life neurosis and experiences. This is directly opposed to the traditional biopic structure of a straight-laced retelling of her life.
This effect of using fictional events to replicate Jackson’s writing works on a completely different level when the film deals with the deteriorating relationship between Rose and her husband, Fred. As the film wears on and Shirley starts to warm to her houseguest, Rose seems to become more and more enraptured by the author. Moreover, she seems to become increasingly independent and self-respecting the more time she spends with Shirley. She begins the film as a meager 50’s housewife and domestic servant of the Jackson’s, before ending the film vowing to her philandering husband (whose infidelity was exposed to Rose by Shirley, in another instance of Shirley having a direct impact on Rose’s life) to never return to domesticity . Rose is seemingly an audience surrogate who is first introduced to profound feelings of uneasiness at her introduction to Shirley but eventually becomes empowered by her as she presses on through her story.
That is the brilliance of what Decker is doing in Shirley. Instead of creating a film inspired by the work of Jackson or a taciturn biopic of her life, Decker instead creates something that tries to replicate the feeling of reading Shirley Jackson within the framework of the author’s mind. By doing this, she is turning the biopic on its head, producing something that is normally described as a fictionalized retelling and transforming it into fiction. It is authenticated fiction inspired by details of Jackson’s inner and relational life, sure, but it is fiction nonetheless. With this kind of artist-inspired, truth-adjacent creation, Josephine Decker created something special and unique, something that never makes us care if, for all intents and purposes, Rose Nesmer never existed.