The ending of Josephine Decker’s Shirley is as mysterious and opaque as its protagonist. Elisabeth Moss exudes an almost supernatural aura — you sometimes catch yourself wondering if those witch rumors about famed horror author Shirley Jackson might have some truth to them. But if you take a beat and think those final moments, there’s a stunning sense of symmetry at work.
The film begins with a shot of Rose (Assassination Nation breakout Odessa Young), whose husband Fred (Logan Lerman) has been invited to guest lecture at Bennington College by Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), Shirley’s husband. She’s just finished reading Jackson’s famously controversial short story, The Lottery, and it has triggered something within her. Within moments, she and Fred having sex in the train compartment bathroom.
Their apparently loving relationship is in sharp contrast to what they find when they arrive at Stanley and Shirley’s house. Like something out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the latter two fight constantly, taunting and baiting each other with gleefully vicious enthusiasm. Soon enough, it becomes clear that Fred and Rose’s short stay might turn into something more long-term. Stanley asks Rose to keep house for them in exchange for room and board, and provide companionship for the mostly housebound Shirley, who has just embarked on a new literary project: a novel centering around the real-life disappearance of Paula Jean Welden. (In reality Jackson’s 1951 novel Hangsaman). Last seen walking into the woods after accepting a ride from a man, Welden comes to represent all the young women who have been wronged by a world that demands their unconditional compliance.
More and more, Rose and Shirley’s days become fused, stuck in a dreamlike limbo between reality and fiction. What began as a wary relationship between two very different women slowly evolves into one of trust and interdependence. Rose looks to Shirley as a mentor. Shirley, on the other hand, sees Rose as a source of tenderness and love, one that has been denied her for a long time. The more time they spend together, the more they appear to be trading places. Shirley, who appeared rough and disheveled earlier in the movie, starts to gain more control over herself, while Rose starts to spiral out of control.
“That was a big part of our kind of our plot with the costumes and the hair and makeup,” Decker told Refinery29 in a phone interview ahead of the movie’s June 5 release on Hulu. “It was really fun to have that sort of seeping transformation.”
Nearly a year passes; Rose and Fred have a child, another baby girl who will grow up to be disappointed in her world. Eventually, Stanley, jealous that his wife’s attention is turned away from him, and towards Rose, decides it’s time for the young couple to find a house of their own. Resentful, Rose forges Paula’s name into one of her library books used in Stanley’s syllabus, in an attempt to frame him as the older man she may have been sleeping with. In doing so, however, she underestimates the depth of Shirley’s relationship with her admittedly philandering husband.
“I know who my husband is screwing,” Shirley tells Rose. Do you know who yours has?”
Rose takes the baby and confronts Fred on campus, who confirms his betrayal, all while minimizing her reaction to it. When he asks her not to make a scene, Rose takes off towards the woods. Mirroring the novel she’s been working on, Shirley catches up with Rose and offers her a ride. But though Rose initially accepts, it’s only so she can hand the baby to Shirley and take off towards the trailhead where Paula disappeared. Shirley finds her standing on the edge of a cliff, looking out at the forest below.
“You were right; it doesn’t take any energy at all,” Rose says. “It’s just a hop. You slide the right foot forward, and it could all be over.”
As Shirley tries to coax Rose back from the precipice, we see brief snapshots of Rose and Fred getting into a car and leaving the Jackson-Hyman household. “A little rest, a little time away, everything will be back to normal,” Fred tells his wife, who smirks at his misguided impression that she’ll let him off the hook. “No no no,” she says. I’m not going back to that. Little wifey, little Rosie, that was madness.”
Back at the cliff, Shirley and Rose stand together in silence for a while, until suddenly, Rose disappears completely. Did she jump? Did she follow Shirley’s instructions to go back? Was she ever there at all? Is Shirley writing her story now?
One could read Rose’s final moments as a dual ending of sorts, one imagined by Shirley as the possible outcomes for her novel. That would indicate that Shirley has been writing Rose’s story all along, a stand-in for Paula and all the other women she wants to represent in her writing. In one version, she’s overwhelmed by events and decides to jump. In another, she’s sent away to recover, but her fierce, determined expression indicates she will come out of the experience stronger and more independent than before. Both of these women live within all of us. At the beginning of the film, Shirley was unsure of her talent and her worth. At the end, she’s being praised as a genius by Stanley, comfortable in the knowledge that it’s true.
But according to Decker, that final feeling uncertainty is the point. “I don't know if I really ever want people to have a very specific thing that they come out of a theater with,” she said. “It’s actually really important to me that everyone has their own experience.”
Looks like you’ll have to watch Shirley to find out where you stand.