The Shining

Year of Release: 1980     Directed Stanley Kubrick.  Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Danny Lloyd, and Scatman Crothers.

The opening of The Shining perfectly sets the mood for the film.  The camera pans over the Rocky Mountains at a tilted angle, suggesting the sinister, supernatural nature that the following story will entail.  To further add to the sense of dread, the Gregorian Chant Dies Irae, as realized by Berlioz in the fifth movement of his Symphonie Fantastique, underscores the imagery.

During this sequence, a brightly colored small sedan cuts across the screen, standing out against the somber backdrop of the Rockies.  The driver has no reason to sense any danger and is eager to arrive at his destination: the Overlook Hotel, where he, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), hopes to take over the duties of caretaker for the winter when the Hotel is closed.  Once there at his job interview, Jack is given a reason to have second thoughts.  The extreme isolation of the hotel during winter, when the mountain road is closed by snow, once drove a prior caretaker to murder his family with an axe.  This does not phase Jack, because he is looking forward to the isolation in order to finish his novel, so there is no worry that he will go insane.

If one does not already know via cultural osmosis, Nicholson’s mannerisms and the opening music clearly indicate that Jack will go insane.  The Dies Irae not only gives the opening of the film a sense of fear, but it also suggests a looming day of reckoning for one’s sins.  In Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the chant is used as the basis of the symphony’s final movement: an artist’s opium induced “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath.”  Novelist Jack Torrance views himself as a creative, artistic individual, and over the course of the film he will regress to his own demonic endeavors.

Jack’s greatest problem is that he places his individualism above all else.  He yells at his wife Wendy (Shelly Duvall) when she interrupts his writing by offering him a sandwich.  He spends nearly no time with his son Danny (Danny Lloyd), and is the outraged when Danny does not trust him and finds his moodiness upsetting.  The one time that Jack does reach out to another character is when he embraces a naked woman in an erotic fantasy, whose existence he denies to the detriment of his son’s well being.

Wendy is trying her best to cope with Danny’s seizures and frequent dialogues with his imaginary friend Tony.  However, her coping usually entails allowing Danny to do what he likes until a crisis occurs.  Due to her ignorance of Danny’s problems, she does not attempt to protect him until it is almost too late.  As if to underscore her unawareness, in an early scene after one of Danny’s seizures, she offers the pediatrician a cigarette as she takes one out for herself.

Since Danny is mostly left alone, he spends the days talking to Tony, who lives in his mouth and tells him things, things that he can repeat to no one.  He also races around the hotel corridors on his tricycle, where he encounters the two murdered daughters of the prior caretaker, who invite him to come play with them, “forever, and ever, and ever.”  Since this is the most direct form of interaction Danny has, he draws even further into himself, eschewing all human company until his fear sends into a sort of trance.  At this point, since Danny’s communication skills are so poor, he reverts to only speaking through Tony, but Tony’s cryptic mutterings are no help or consolation to the very concerned Wendy.

The title of the film refers to a special means of communication.  Danny has a unique gift that enables him to correspond with others without speaking or even seeing the person with whom he is communicating.  However, Tony forbids him from telling his parents about his gift.  The one adult who understands Danny, the hotel’s cook Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), also shares this gift.  As Hallorann explains when he meets Danny, the two of them “shine.”  This shine penetrates the demonic forces of the hotel.  It allows Danny to see what happened in the past, and know what danger the inevitable future holds.  He cannot communicate that danger, because of his isolation from his parents, but the shining does offer him the only chance of salvation from the evil in the Overlook Hotel.

Stephen King initially complained that The Shining betrayed one of the central ideas of his novel, the disintegration of the family.  King also said he wanted Jack portrayed by a likeable everyman, who is driven insane by the sinister forces within the hotel.  I think the first complaint is groundless; the film is clearly about the disintegration of family and its consequent horror.  Jack puts himself and his work before everything else, and the horror stems from those decisions.  Even Wendy unwittingly allows Danny to keep to himself and shun human interactions; when she fulfills her duties as a mother, she gives herself and Danny a chance for survival.

King’s second complaint may have some weight to it, but I also disagree.  Had Jack been a praiseworthy husband and father, he would never have desired extreme isolation from all society, including his wife and son, which leads to him losing his mind.  Kubrick’s shift of the source of the horror from the hotel to Jack himself emphasizes King’s theme much better than King realized by portraying the consequences of Jack’s choices and not making him a victim of an outside force.

Kubrick emphasizes the themes of isolation and ignoring one’s family through his meticulous camera use.   During conversations, different camera angles place each character on a different visual plane, giving the sense that they are each in their own world and are not connected or fully listening to one another.  The low steadicam tracking shots follow Danny around the hotel on his tricycle, focusing only on him.  When other characters walk around the hotel, the camera slowly follows them at an unusually long distance, placing them alone far away from the viewer.

The selection of music also adds to the eerie, suspenseful tone of the film.  Kubrick picked very atmospheric pieces by Penderecki, Ligeti, and Bartok.  He even edited scenes so significant actions and movements would correspond with noticeable accents in the music.  Scenes play out longer than they otherwise would have in order to allow the music to shape the mood.

Kubrick opted to make the characters in The Shining victims of their own selfish choices.  While he does suggest there is a permanent force of evil afoot at the Overlook Hotel, he clearly shows the consequences of that evil only occur when characters freely choose to embrace it.  No character escapes the consequences of their sins, and the most grievous sins, those that destroy the family, are punished most severely.  Through his usual skilled direction, Kubrick crafted a film that frightens not only through suspense, but also through its unflinching application of the effects of sin.


Content Advisory: Semi-explicit full frontal nudity, brief shot of pornographic photos, several scenes of disturbing violence and gore, family discord, occasional profanity and obscenity.                      MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Adults with much discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+


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