#5 in my Ranking of Stanley Kubrick films.
Analysis of Kubrick’s 1980 horror film tends to devolve into pure symbology, and I find that type of analysis dull at best. I’ve seen breakdowns of the film that range from it being a comment on alcoholism, family breakdown, American history regarding Native Americans, and even the gold standard. These are about sussing out patterns that require either very isolated readings of certain elements or the use of outside factors like Stephen King’s novel in order to support. I prefer to view The Shining rather simply, as a horror film.
The things that some other people latch onto in order to try and explain the film are definitely in the film, but, to take perhaps the most ridiculous example, the idea that Stanley Kubrick made a film about a man trying to murder his family that is actually about the end of the gold standard in America is, shall we say, absurd. People have fun with this kind of analysis, but I have more fun enjoying a great chill.
It’s obvious from the moment we see Jack Torrence for the first time that he’s an unhappy man. His smile feels forced, his jokes feel unenthusiastic, and he seems to be hiding something. Through the first half hour, we get hints and stories of Jack’s alcoholism that he is recovering from, some violence he visited upon his small child, and a distance from his wife. Three years before the events of the film, Jack came home drunk to find Danny, his boy, messing with his work papers. In a fit of rage he pulled at Danny’s arm, dislocating it. Five months before the film, he swore off alcohol for good, refusing to take another drop. His wife, Wendy, implies that the sobriety stems from the violence against Danny, but it goes unremarked by anyone that there are two and a half years between that moment of violence and the moment Jack got on the wagon. The idea that the violence itself was what drove him to give up alcohol isn’t true. There are hints that Jack lost his job as a school teacher in Vermont roughly five months before, so it seems like the loss of his livelihood is actually what drove him dry.
Jack takes the job as the winter caretaker at the Overlook Hotel in a remote corner of the mountains in Colorado. He relishes the idea of taking five months away from the pressures of the real world to focus on writing. While he hasn’t written anything yet, since he has no other job, he styles himself as one nonetheless. When they arrive to take possession of the Overlook, Danny meets with Mr. Hallorann who shares Danny’s psychic power called “shining” and giving explanation to the apocalyptic visions of the hotel Danny had seen earlier in the film.
Life in the Overlook has a dual effect on Jack. He expresses great love for the hotel itself and the isolation it offers him, but it’s obvious that something’s eating away at him from the inside. He tries to write, but Wendy keeps distracting him. The rest of the family finds way to fill their days by running through the large hedge maze and Danny rides his plastic tricycle through the halls. It’s here that the weirdness and supernatural begins to amp up with visions of dead girls and a naked woman who attack Danny, seduces Jack, and then repels him by becoming an old woman whose body is water decayed. Wendy doesn’t know what to believe, first blaming Jack for the violence against Danny before running to Jack for protection.
Jack’s losing it though. He sees a bartender and has some Jack Daniels in the Gold Room, the giant ballroom. He talks to the previous caretaker, Mr. Grady, who is dead and had killed his own whole family in the hotel ten years before. He’s also been writing nothing but “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” on a typewriter over an entire ream of paper. He’s primed for violence, and he takes an axe in pursuit of his family. Mr. Hollorann, though, is called to the Overlook by Danny’s shining before getting quickly dispatched by Jack. Danny outsmarts Jack by luring him into the maze in the middle of the winter night, getting him lost, and then exiting out. Jack then freezes to death and appears in a photograph from a party that happened almost sixty years before.
In terms of why this movie works so well in the terror department, I think it’s best to start with the Steadicam. The way Kubrick uses the smooth movement of the new invention creates a sense of unease. There’s something wrong about how the camera’s clear focus and steady passage through an environment that feels unnatural. Shots seem to go on for too long. Everything is too easy to see. And the grace of the camera around the sets feels just too perfect. We don’t see these kind of camera moves in the one major scene that’s set outside the Outlook, that in the Torrence home in Boulder, so it’s exclusive to the hotel, giving it an otherworldly feel.
The music itself is atonal and metronomic at times, creating another source of unease that permeates the film. From the opening of the film, we can just feel that something isn’t right with the place. We obviously can’t put our finger on it, but the filmmaking is telling us implicitly. On top of that is Mr. Ullman telling Jack about Mr. Grady’s murder and suicide from a decade before.
Another great source of terror is, well, the source of terror. This is a ghost movie where the ghosts don’t really do a whole lot. Lloyd, the bartender, gives Jack a drink of Tennessee whiskey (not bourbon, jeez, TOTALLY different). Whether that is actually liquor passes Jack’s lips isn’t something with a real explanation in the film, but it’s Jack’s belief that it is real that’s important. He feels refreshed taking that drink in a way that he hasn’t felt in five months. That effect on Jack is what drives him to become violent. He’s the source of terror. In a family unit, the father turns on the mother and child. It’s the destruction of what should be something naturally safe. The ghosts are dressings of terror. The source itself is the destruction of this family.
And the destruction of the family really began before the movie. Jack is obviously unhappy in his marriage and Wendy seems to have no idea. Maybe it’s the fact that Jack hasn’t had a drop of liquor in almost half a year. Maybe it’s because Wendy is both passive and kind of annoying in her need to appease her husband. Maybe it’s that Jack’s life is obviously not where he had planned it. Whatever it was that had driven Jack from his teaching job, it’s pretty obvious that it wasn’t something he wanted to happen (my guess is that he went to school drunk one too many times). His isolation with only his family heightened the contrast within him between his dreams, manifested in the idea of writing a book, and his reality, manifested in an endless stream of pages that all say the same thing in different arrangements. Unable to cope with his own failure, he takes it out on his family. Instead of seeing his family as support, he sees them purely as a burden.
Looking back through Kubrick’s other films up to this point, the breakdown of the family is a repeating motif. The Killing, Lolita, and Barry Lyndon all have strong examples of a family coming apart at the seams. For all three, there’s the introduction of a new element (a lover in the first, and a new father figure in the other two) that causes the breakdown of the tender bonds that had existed before. The Shining, of course, also shows the breakdown of a family unit, but there’s no literal manifestation of an outer element destroying the bonds in the form of something like a lover. It’s the ghosts that are that manifestation here, ghosts that may be figments of Jack’s imagination (though, then how does he get out of the food pantry, huh smart guy?). The ghosts are this destructive force that pulls the family apart. Perhaps the alcohol could be seen as the outer force as well (this fits with Jack’s violent backstory regarding his harm of Danny). Does Kubrick see the family as something incredibly fragile that could fall apart with just the slightest of strains? He was a family man himself, marrying Christine a short time after meeting her on the set of Paths of Glory and having a darling daughter who appeared as Dr. Floyd’s daughter in 2001. Was this perhaps a manifestation of his fear of losing his family? He was an intensely private man who guarded her personal life with great care. Did he fear losing his family if he introduced something new?
The Shining is first and foremost an exquisitely crafted horror film. From the camera work, to the geography of the hotel that never quite makes sense, to the performances, and finally to the music, the film creates an otherworldly feel that unnerves the audience, creating the perfect environment to strike terror. That terror is firmly rooted in something very relatable to an audience, the fear of losing family, and it works marvelously. It also could be about the gold standard, I guess.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4
7 thoughts on “The Shining”
I assume you’ve seen “Room 237,” the somewhat ridiculous compendium of Shining theories. While I buy very little of it, it does point out some of the “unreliable narrator” stuff that makes the film unnerving–like the chair in one shot that isn’t there in the next, and the color of the typewriter changing.
I haven’t seen it, but I’ve read about it. My brother, who’s a video editor, just laughed his way through it apparently, especially about the missing chair bit. Kubrick was meticulous, but he did dozens of takes so something like a chair disappearing from one shot to the next could very easily happen by accident on a film set.
My bit about the gold standard comes from a four part Youtube series I watched about a decade ago. I was really drawn into it, but revisiting the film I realized how the huge things the videos were pointing out were actually very small parts of the film overall.
I actually thought of how I suddenly “got” Bergman’s Persona. It was by trying to watch the movie as literally as possible that I was able to cut through my innate need to decipher symbols and just watch the people involved. That’s the primary way to really watch both Persona and The Shining. Yes, there’s symbolism rampant in both, but there’s also a human story at its core. First, attack the human story and then start on the symbols from that foundation.
I am interested in Room 237, though. I can’t wait to see the details of how Kubrick apologized for faking the moon landing by making The Shining.
Room 237 is very, very entertaining, but yeah, I can’t really take any of it seriously.
It does make me wonder if Kubrick simply put things in there for people to “explain,” much like the Beatles would put deliberate obscurities into their lyrics.
Thinking of the Apollo 11 sweater that Danny wears, I could believe that it was just a piece of clothing that the actor owned and Kubrick allowed him to wear. He was extremely protective of the boy, and that could have extended towards letting him wear his own clothes as long as it made him feel comfortable.
I could also imagine Kubrick’s deeply ironic sense of humor taking over and deciding on the sweater knowing that people would interpret it as an admission that he had faked the moon landing. He could have done it just to troll, which feels like actions right inside his wheelhouse.
I toyed with putting this movie in my top 100 list, because I do love it (I think I chose The Sixth Sense instead). The cinematography and Jack Nicholson are very strong hooks but one of the things that make it work as a horror is the presence of the supernatural.
There is no ‘explanation’ for the ghosts or the bartender or for Jack Torrance showing up in that photograph. They don’t even try to pseudo-science it, like King did in the novel and in Firestarter. There is a real force at work and it is malevolent. It acts upon weakness, it provides temptation and if you succumb, it takes you. I prefer that interpretation over the book and mini-series which has Jack coming out of his murderous rage long enough to kill himself.
This is one of those rare movies that are BETTER than the book. Because Steven King is terrible at endings, among other reasons.